Mines News

Release Date Monday, June 21, 2021

Ripples Become Waves South Dakota Mines Celebrates 10 Years of the Tiospaye Scholar Program

A tepee at South Dakota Mines is adorned with the hand prints of all Tiospaye graduates. 

In the Lakota language, the word Tiospaye means “extended family.” That’s exactly what the Tiospaye program on the South Dakota Mines campus has become for so many Native American students.

The Tiospaye Program, launched in 2010, was funded by a 10-year-grant from the National Science Foundation. The program, led by Mines professor Dr. Carter Kerk, is designed to help increase the number of Native American students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And it has done just that. In December 2020, the program graduated its 50th student. Now at the end of the 10-year grant, Kerk is working to secure private funding to continue a program he sees as instrumental in ensuring that Native American students on campus have the support to succeed. For more information, contact Kerk at Carter.Kerk@sdsmt.edu.

Tiospaye Scholars

Heather Rogers EE 18 Assistant Electrical Engineer with Burns & McDonnell, Arizona

Heather Rogers was 12 years old before her family had running water and electricity in their home on the Navajo Nation. Growing up, she witnessed family members and peers struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction. But one thing she had in her corner was a drive to make things better in her community and the expectations of her family that she would get an education and succeed. Rogers, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation tribe, developed an interest in STEM in high school. “I knew I liked the STEM fields, and they’re promising careers,” she says. “Plus, I really wanted to do meaningful work, and this was my way in.”After high school, she landed a scholarship to play basketball at Scottsdale Community College, where she earned an associate’s degree. From there she moved to another junior college where she continued to play basketball, but she wanted more academically.She learned about South Dakota Mines and was eventually offered a Hardrocker basketball scholarship. By 2015, she was on campus, but the transition was difficult. Rogers didn’t bond with fellow players who she felt couldn’t relate to her upbringing. She was far from home, facing rigorous academics, and feeling alone. “I felt different. I felt out of place,” she says. “It was rough. After my first semester I was ready to throw in the towel.” Tiospaye made the difference. “I got really involved in Tiospaye at the end of my first semester, and that saved me,” she says. “The other students in Tiospaye came from the same places I came from. They understood the struggle of having so many people depending on you.”Tiospaye created a supportive community of students who work together to succeed. “My second and third year I made some of my best friends there on the basketball team and in the Tiospaye Program.”Now working at Burns & McDonnell, Rogers is back in Arizona and focused on growing as an engineer. “My 10-year-goal is to learn all I can and then hopefully transition some of that back to my home community,” she says. “I want to see my work have a positive impact on people ... to make an impact on where I come from and the people who I belong to.

Jacob Phipps CHEM 14 Project Manager with the US Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9, California

Without the Tiospaye Program, Jacob Phipps wouldn’t have graduated from South Dakota Mines. But he did, and today the 29-year-old alumnus, an enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation tribe, is a remedial project manager with the US Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, Calif., overseeing the cleanup of abandoned uranium mines in the Southwest and particularly on the Navajo Nation.  Jacob grew up in Phoenix and was a first-generation college student when he entered Northern Arizona University with a full-ride scholarship to play football and study chemistry. After two years, the load of chemistry and DI football took its toll. He went looking for a change and eventually connected with athletics at South Dakota Mines. He arrived on campus in 2012, and from the start faced a challenge. “I had never been far away from home,” he says. “When I moved to South Dakota I fell into a dark place. I was unhappy.” Fortunately, he eventually connected with Tiospaye mentor Dee LeBeau. Suddenly, he felt more grounded and comfortable. “She was a really big part of my life when I was at South Dakota Mines,” he says. He became more deeply involved in the Tiospaye Program, joined the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and developed friendships with other Native American students. The experience brought him closer to his Native American culture, which prompted him after graduation to work in positions that help Native American populations: Indian Health Service, the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. After graduating from Mines in 2014, Jacob went on to earn a master’s degree in environmental science and engineering from Oregon Health and Science University. It’s a program he was unaware he even had an interest in until Kerk recommended he consider an environmental internship. That newly found interest led to Oregon and eventually the EPA. “It’s the folks you meet along the way ... they led me to where I am today,” he says.

Jessica Muxen IEEM 10 / MS IEEM 13 Senior Associate Industrial Engineer at Collins Aerospace, Iowa

When Jessica Muxen first arrived at South Dakota Mines in 2005, she was a single mother of a baby boy with little money and few prospects. Today, Muxen is a senior associate industrial engineer at Collins Aerospace. She credits the Tiospaye Program for helping her get there. “It’s programs like Tiospaye and people like Dr. Kerk who helped me become an engineer when it was never anything I thought I would or could even do,” she says. Muxen’s parents met in the US Army. Her mother is Native American and grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation; her dad is Creole and grew up in Louisiana. When her parents divorced after leaving the Army, Muxen lived with her grandmother in Pine Ridge while her mother worked in Rapid City.  Thanks to her good grades in high school, she landed a scholarship to Carthage College in Wisconsin. She describes herself at that time as “aimless.” She dropped out after freshman year and returned to Rapid City, where she worked at Walmart and reconnected with a high school boyfriend. They married and “the veil came off,” she says of her ex-husband’s abusive nature. She tolerated the abuse until the day she witnessed her husband screaming at her two-week old son, LeRoy. Muxen says she packed her bags and left the next morning. Working minimum wage jobs in Rapid City, she was “just barely getting by” when she enrolled at Oglala Lakota College for accounting. That led to a meeting with a fellow student who also attended Mines and encouraged her to apply. “I took my first class at Mines, Algebra II, and I loved it. I loved the campus, I loved the challenge. Maybe I was finally ready. I had a goal in mind.”Muxen went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mines, all while raising her son. She leaned on the Tiospaye Program and her fellow Native American students for support and encouragement. Tiospaye provided scholarship support as well as a place where she felt at home. “I think having the opportunity to be with a community that will support you when you’re new at it ... it’s a huge help,” she says of Tiospaye. “The only way I was able to get through Mines was the support." 

Logan Gayton CEE 17 / MS CEE 19 FMG Engineering, Rapid City

When Logan Gayton first arrived at South Dakota Mines in 2012, he was perplexed by fellow students who didn’t finish drinks or left goodies half eaten.  “Students who got care packages from home and left half of it ... not finishing it,” he says. “Those were some cultural shocks. I would have never done that.”Gayton, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, would never have done that because growing up his family “didn’t have a lot of anything above necessity.” Raised primarily by a single mother in Rapid City, Gayton and his three brothers learned early to take nothing for granted. From high school on, he worked a job to help pay his way. In his senior year at Rapid City Central High School, Gayton was forced to quit extracurriculars to get a job because money was tight.From the start at South Dakota Mines, he took advantage of what the Tiospaye Program had to offer – scholarship money, programming, mentorship, and, most importantly, a sense of community. “Tiospaye definitely made it easier,” he says. “When you go to college and you come from a certain background, some students just can’t relate. It was a way to find other people who come from similar backgrounds. We were all broke in the same color.”What he also found in Tiospaye was fellow students who wanted to help each other succeed. “We were in service to each other to make sure we all made it,” he says. “I had three other friends who were in civil (engineering) and when we all took classes, we took them together. It made it fun and easier to succeed together.”Still, it wasn’t easy. Near the end of his bachelor’s program, Gayton was working four part-time jobs in addition to going to school. With the support of Tiospaye and fellow Tiospaye students, as well as his wife Dani, Gayton went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil and environmental engineering. Today, he works as an engineer with FMG Engineering in Rapid City and has plans to someday get his PhD and possibly teach. He credits Tiospaye for helping to make it all happen.




About South Dakota Mines  

Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,493 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 98 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $70,036. For these reasons  South Dakota Mines is ranked among the best engineering schools in the country for return on investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on FacebookTwitter, LinkedInInstagram, and Snapchat.

Contact: Mike Ray, 605-394-6082, mike.ray@sdsmt.edu