'It's an experience I won't forget'

In 2017, the Lincoln Board of Education approved a three-year pilot program in partnership with the Indian Center to provide academic support and an incentive for Native American students to graduate from high school. Part of that incentive included giving eligible seniors an eagle feather to wear on their graduation cap as a reward.

Now in its third year, communications coordinator Mindy Burbach sat down with Lincoln Northeast High School senior Alan Acoya on the last day of school to talk about his accomplishments and how receiving the eagle feather to wear at graduation impacted him. Below is the transcript of their conversation:

I want to know about your journey, tell me where you went to elementary, middle and high school…
So, when I was younger I lived with my dad and he has drug and alcohol problems. So we never really stayed in one spot for any long period of time. So the first actual complete year of school that I completed wasn’t until fifth grade. That’s when I moved here to live with my mom. I went to Huntington, and after that I went to Dawes Middle School - which I still kind of miss a little bit - and then now I'm here at Lincoln Northeast.

You said elementary school, fifth grade year was your first year at Huntington. What was that like going into Huntington Elementary?
That was really like a reality shock for me. So when I was growing up, I never really had a home or stable income or anything like that. And to go from that - to having a place to sleep, to having food to eat, to know where I was going to have dinner and actually go to school - it was so completely different. I realized how bad of a life I had. And to come here, and being nine years old, and having that switch it was...it was kind of crazy.

I ended up really shy because I didn't know how to make friends. I didn't really apply myself because I didn't know how to work hard or anything like that it. It was really completely two different scenarios that I went through, but it all worked out and I'm sitting here now.

Talk to me a little bit about Dawes Middle School - you talked about how you missed it. Tell me about those teachers and how that made a difference for you and your path to high school…
After elementary school, I really didn't try very much in the fifth grade. Then it came to Dawes and then that was another complete change up to go from a normal elementary school to going to Dawes. Middle school has bigger kids than me, and had like class periods, and had to go to lockers and we had to really manage yourself a lot. I had two teachers - Mr. Miller and Señora Nickum - and they really pushed me to my limits. Like they understood what I was capable of and they really helped me unlock that deeper part of myself. Without them I don't know what I’d be right now.

Have you seen them since you left Dawes?
Unfortunately, I haven't. My brother went to Dawes a couple months ago to an open house and neither one of them were there so I couldn’t talk to them.

What would you say to them if you were able to see them again?
First and foremost, I’d just give my thanks because I'm really appreciative of them. They're really good teachers. Even beyond that, they're really good friends. They can be there when you need them and they know that people can do great things as long as they apply themselves. That's what they helped me with.

How about here at Northeast, have you made any connections with anybody, or anybody you’re going to miss?
There’s a lot of friends I’m going to miss. There will be some teachers too. Mr. Bettendorf, he’s my favorite teacher. I had him my freshman year, my sophomore year and my senior year. I'm one of like five students have done that. We really just established a connection. It's more than just teacher and a student, it’s friend to a friend. He knows how smart I am and he doesn't let me do anything less than that. Unfortunately, I don't want to do some of the things, but he makes sure I do them because he knows that I can.

You’ve really had to push yourself hard to get done...
Yeah, some of the stuff just comes naturally to me, but others I have to work for it. Like my AP Calculus final, I was worried about that but I ended up getting a 95 on the final and finishing with a 98 percent in the class.

Talk about what you’ve achieved in just the last couple of years…
Well probably some of my best accomplishments, I got a 33 ACT composite score. I’m in the top five percent of my class. I've been in Omaha World-Herald as an honorable mention, and I will be in the Lincoln Journal Star for Class Acts. I just think that it's crazy how much you can do if you really apply yourself, and I think it's even more crazy that I did all this coming from a hard childhood.

How does that feel to know you are being recognized for that hard work, that grit?
It really pays off. It’s so worth it. I’ve missed hanging out with friends. I've been had a job of sorts, to focus on school and everything, and it all just pays off in the end. It's really worth it.

You got a 33 on your ACT. When you saw that score, when you opened it up, what was your reaction?
I couldn't believe it and first. I thought it might be wrong or something like that. It was actually better than what I got my pre-ACT. I was confused at first and then it kind of sunk in and I was like “wow, I really did get a 33.” Only like five or six seniors who got a 32 or better in the ACT at Northeast.

How many times did you take it?
Just the one time.

What's been your favorite class in high school?
That's a good question. I'll have to say probably my AP Psychology class. I took that last year as a junior and it's one of the classes I had with Mr. Bettendorf.  We just learn like how the brain works - memories, genetics, things like that - and it was just a really interesting class. If you really sit down to think about it, the brain is so amazing. I don't know how to else to explain it. It was just a really fun class, and I had a great teacher, and there's a lot of cool people in that class. Now one of them is going to UNO next year and she's going to be leaving in a couple months and I'm going to be going to San Diego. I really met some good friends and it was just a really good class.

When you cross the stage on Sunday, and you're getting handed your diploma and they're shaking your hand, what's going to be going through your head?
I have no idea. I'm going to be so shocked. I don’t think it has really set in yet. I am done with school. I don't have to go to high school no more and that's just crazy to think about. Four years here and I'm graduating top five percent, and seven semester honor roll... that's just crazy to think of where I come from and that's where I'm at right now.

Did you ever think when you were in fifth grade or sixth grade that this is where you would be?
I really didn't. I really didn't. I didn't think - I mean I hoped I graduated - but I didn't think that I'd be this accomplished. I never knew the ability that I had, and I applied myself and now I'm here.

Is there a moment that you thought this is the reason, or this is why I should try harder or persevere or anything?
The reason why I try so hard is because my I don't want to be like my dad. I want to have a good solid life when I grow up, and I don't want anything that I had to go through, I don't want my children to have to suffer through that. I don't want to be like him that's why.

What do your future plans include?
For the summer I'm going to work as much as I can, and in October I'm going to be shipping out for the Marine boot camp. I'm going into the Marine Corps and if I like it I might stay in, if not then I might choose to go to college afterwards.

What’s your interest, your passion, what are you passionate about?
I really like building things. I'm going in as a combat engineer for the Marine Corps, and after that maybe going into some sort of architectural engineering in college.

What opportunity have you gotten here at Lincoln Public Schools to help you reach that next level of going in the Marine Corps?
Really, my counselor helped me a lot. She understood what I was capable of. She knows that I am able to do good things for everybody - like for Native Americans and just for people in general. Me and my parents decided that the Marine Corps would probably be the best idea for me. It really changes who you are as a person, but it changes you for the better, always. Any person that we’ve met, I have a cousin - and he's in the Army National Guard right now - and he says that he doesn't regret any decision that he made for that. I have another cousin who was in the Navy, and he says it was the best decision of his life too. Everyone that I talked about and everyone I’ve talked to about the military really says that it's a decision that you won’t regret. I'm looking forward to it.

Has there been a role model in your life that you've looked up to, that has gotten you to this moment?
Right now, I’d have to say it would be my mom. My mom also had drug and alcohol problems, but she has been 11 years clean and sober now. To know where she came from - her childhood and her earlier life, the hard troubles that she had - and to make it now where she's living in a nice home and she has a stable income.

What advice do you have? I mean you're obviously going to be a role model for other Native American youth - not only in high school, but middle school and elementary school - what advice do you have for them as they get ready to continue on their educational journey?
I would say just keep pushing. Things are going to get harder before they get easier. As long as you keep pushing yourself and understand what your limits are and somehow surpass that. I think anybody can do great things.

You have such an inspirational story - what you've been through and how you persevered - and I hope you know that's an inspiration to others as well. What are your dreams for your little brother?
I hope he has to suffer none, to suffer none of the things that I’ve had to go through. He is gifted. He's in diff math, and he's in diff reading. He's a smart kid, but he also has autism. He has some times where he has troubles accepting things, but he's gotten over that and now he's always one of his teacher’s favorite students. I hope he continues that, and I hope he will apply himself and do the great things that I know he can do.

You are participating in the Eagle Feather program which is new for Lincoln Public Schools. It’s only been in existence for three years. Tell me a little bit about that program, and what does that mean for you to participate in it?
The Eagle Feather program, I think it’s a really cool program. It allows Native American seniors who are graduating to have an eagle feather that they can wear on their cap when they’re graduating. I think it's really cool for Native American seniors to have this opportunity. It really shows who we are, that Native Americans are still here. I mean we really only make up like two percent of the American population, but the people who are still here we're still trying and we're graduating. I think it just shows who we are.

Tell me about that Eagle Feather ceremony, what happens there?
There are a lot of Native American kids there. Native American seniors whom I know from different high schools. It is really from all LPS high schools. It's really spiritual. It almost connects everybody. It’s just crazy. There's a deeper feeling that comes with just getting an eagle feather. Something else is there and it really shows Native Americans who they are. And with the eagle feather, it is an experience I won’t forget.

How does your family feel about that?
They were super stoked. They were really excited for me, and I was too. Native Americans are the only people legally allowed to own eagle feathers. To get one for my graduation, I thought that was pretty cool.

What is your heritage - I know you're Native American but - what is your tribe?
I’m enrolled in the Ho-Chunk tribe. They’re about two hours north of Lincoln. I'm also part Cherokee, and I have some Canadian Cree in me. I'm also an eighth Irish. My great-great-grandma was full Irish.

Published: June 4, 2019, Updated: June 5, 2019

"I think it's really cool for Native American seniors to have this opportunity. It really shows who we are, that Native Americans are still here. I mean we really only make up like two percent of the American population, but the people who are still here we're still trying and we're graduating. I think it just shows who we are."

Highlights from the interview:

Listen to the full interview in our Podcast: