WAGNER — As she was growing up, Joi Zephier saw the loving care provided for ill family members.
"When I was younger, I would spend summers with my grandma while she was taking care of my great-grandpa," she said. "And when my grandma had a hospice nurse, it pushed me in that direction (for a career)."
Kobe Weverka also recalled memories of time with family members that shaped his life and interests.
"Ever since I was young, I liked to take apart stuff and see how it works, then put it together," he said. "I helped my grandpa on the farm because things were always getting broken."
The two Yankton Sioux tribal members are both high school seniors who graduate next week — Zephier at Wagner and Weverka at Andes Central.
They don’t know each other personally, but they are linked by a historic bond. At a special ceremony Wednesday, they became the first two students to receive full scholarships to technical schools because of a historic agreement.
The Yankton Sioux Tribe and the Build Dakota program have formed a partnership — the first of its kind in South Dakota — to cover a tribal member’s costs to attend a technical school.
Weverka will study diesel power technology at Mitchell Technical Institute (MTI), while Zephier will study nursing at Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls.
Build Dakota Scholarships are awarded to skilled scholars entering high-need workforce programs at South Dakota technical institutes.
The program was created through a $50 million investment. The program was funded by a $25 million donation from financier and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford and a $25 million contribution from the South Dakota Future Fund.
MTI admissions director Clayton Deuter attended Wednesday’s signing ceremony for the scholarship recipients, tribal leadership and technical institutes. He thanked the Yankton Sioux Tribe, noting the landmark arrangement that doesn’t involve just his school.
"This is the first agreement for Mitchell Tech and Lake Area Tech (of Watertown), and I believe Southeast Tech, entering into an agreement as true partners for the Build Dakota Scholarship with one of the tribes," he said.
"This is a huge step for all of us. At the end of this (training for the two students), we’ll have a nurse and a trained technician go out and work, hopefully, in the community."
Deuter noted another unique aspect of the agreement — a requirement of working three years anywhere in South Dakota following graduation, but not necessarily back on the Yankton Sioux traditional homeland in southern Charles Mix County.
"It’s pretty amazing that there is no requirement (for the graduate) to come back to the area," he said. "I don’t know that it’s very common for an entity sponsoring a student to not require (them to return home)."
While not required to do so, both Zephier and Weverka told the Press & Dakotan they would like to return home after graduation, if possible.
Under the agreement, the scholarship recipients must meet a set of expectations, including academic and attendance requirements. The partnering entities have the right to check directly on the students’ grades, attendance, residency and other aspects.
If the student quits school or fails to meet requirements, the full scholarship is revoked and immediately becomes a loan that must be repaid.
Currently, each scholarship covers $18,000 during a two-year period for a student’s tuition, books, fees, a laptop computer and tools, if required for a program.
MEETING A NEED
The historic partnership arose out of discussions involving Yankton Sioux Tribe chairman Robert Flying Hawk; YST adult vocational trainer George Langdeaux; tribal council members; Deuter and former Wagner High School counselor Dana Sanderson, who retired after four decades with the district.
Sanderson said, during his time as counselor, he saw a need for encouraging more tribal students to pursue post-secondary education and careers. In particular, this scholarship ties into a state program and provides both the finances and encouragement for tribal students.
The Yankton Sioux leadership saw a similar need for assisting its youth, and the discussions gained momentum and more parties, Sanderson said.
"This idea is intended to give students an opportunity to go off to technical school, study and really become successful in school," he said. "After graduation, they’re free to live anywhere they choose in South Dakota. They’re not required to come back home, although we hope they consider coming back and making our community better, as well."
The three technical institutes want to work with the Yankton Sioux, and Lake Area Tech wants to expand the program to tribes in the Watertown area, Sanderson said. Hopefully, the program will eventually include all tribes within the state, he added.
"The (Yankton Sioux) tribe has offered four years of support for this program," he said. "I have nothing but praise for the tribe because of its leadership and the discussions involved with this effort. Everywhere I go, I tell people how impressed I am with the tribe."
Flying Hawk expressed gratitude for the parties who made the agreement a reality. He considers it a win-win situation for South Dakota, particularly for students interested in technical programs that can fill workforce needs.
"We have our children throughout our community and all the communities who have a challenge before them as to what are we going to do tomorrow," he said. "I am thankful the Yankton Sioux Tribe can be part of this partnership and help a lot of (students) choosing vocational training."
With Build South Dakota, Weverka saw the potential to complete studies for a technical skill in a shorter amount of time, graduate with less — or in this case, no — debt and to begin a good-paying career sooner.
"After college, I plan on either working with a local operation or start my own shop where I can fix tractors," he said.
Zephier will complete her Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) training in 11 months. She will then advance to the school’s nine-month program transitioning an LPN to a registered nurse.
She sees the scholarship going beyond a dollar amount. The agreement unlocks new doors to her future and provides opportunities that may not otherwise be available to her.
The program also includes encouragement during the application process and also while the student is attending the technical institute.
"You want to do better, and people believe you can do better," she said. "A lot of my classmates don’t have that (encouragement) at home, or they don’t have future plans or want to pursue college or further their education."
In that respect, Zephier credited the Yankton Sioux leadership for investing in its young members’ futures.
"I was actually surprised (at the new partnership). Not a lot of tribes do things like that," she said. "I think it will be good for us. It’s huge. I think you’ll see a lot of kids believe they can go out and do anything. The tribe is being supportive and wants to get more of their kids out there (into the workforce)."
Weverka agreed, believing the scholarship sends a powerful message.
"It’s good to see the tribe encouraging students to further their education rather than just finishing high school and stopping or just dropping out," he said. "This is an opportunity that may get other students to pursue college or technical school. If (this scholarship) gets spread throughout the state, I’m pretty sure the parents will look at it more."
At Wednesday’s ceremony, Deuter reassured the audience that the Build Dakota scholarship, now in its fifth year, will continue in future years.
"The Build Dakota Scholarship will be around because it will use the endowment money set aside by the State of South Dakota," he said. "This is the last year for Mr. Sanford’s generous donation of $25 million. The other half of the scholarship will be paid by that (endowment) fund. As we continue on, we expect to see the Build Dakota Scholarship continue long term for years to come."
The YST remains committed to the program for the next four years, at least, with the goal of getting at least eight scholarship recipients into the program, Flying Hawk said.
"My hope and prayer is for the very best for (the young people)," he said. "I think, with the requirements they went through (to earn the scholarships), there will be nothing but success for them as they continue. They provide role models for their peer group and for our community."
Weverka brought his grandparents, Nick Stotz and Mary Antelope-Stotz, to Wednesday’s ceremony.
Stotz expressed pride in his grandson.
"What an opportunity. Now, he can run with the big dogs," Stotz said with a chuckle. "He’s really excited about staying in the area. This scholarship is going to a really good kid."
Weverka spoke of the need to work hard and take chances.
"The only thing I would say is that you have to set your mind to go out and pursue it," he said. "You can’t expect things to come to you. You have to go out and get it, like this opportunity."
Zephier brought her mother, Nicole Zephier, and grandfather, Loren Zephier.
"We’re proud of her. I think this will open up opportunities," Loren said. "It’s very important to support and encourage the kids. It’s all about believing in yourself."
Joi Zephier said she feels a special pride in being one of the first two scholarship recipients. She believes the message will inspire others.
"The tribe is saying you can succeed," she said. "A lot of people look down on the tribe and reservations, but we have a lot (of good things) going on here that you can’t see from the outside. We have a lot of talented young people here."
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