May 15—CASS LAKE — Single motherhood. Tackling college during a pandemic. Battling mental health issues. Being a woman in a primarily male-dominated career field.
None of these things are easy on their own, but Kwe Humphrey somehow has managed to conquer them all at once and thrive while doing so. She is also graduating with straight As and as Student of the Year.
Her young son, Waase, has been a big part of this journey and he will be joining her as she accepts a diploma from Leech Lake Tribal College's integrated residential builder program on Saturday, May 15, as part of LLTC's class of 2021.
Thrown to the wolves
Before starting her program at LLTC, Humphrey was emerging from a dark place. Now, using the skills she's acquired through her time in college, she's building her small family a home with her own two hands.
After completing a mental health treatment program, she was coping with some personal struggles. Although she didn't plan on attending college, she wanted to be employable and keep herself accountable.
"I needed something to just occupy my time," she said. "I needed to be accountable to something."
"When I began my college career I had been struggling with mental health issues for years. I had just gotten out of a mental health treatment center to stabilize after a suicide attempt," Humphrey wrote in an essay for her Student of the Year application. "I registered for classes the next semester and despite struggling to get caught up in basic skills, trouble focusing, worried I couldn't pay my bills, I succeeded with all A's."
Humphrey said she could've "picked her program out of a hat," when she applied to school, but settled on the integrated residential builder program because she thought she'd be able to find a job after graduation.
She quickly realized the program aligned with her goals by incorporating Anishinaabe values into construction and found a passion for bringing ideas on paper to physical realities.
"I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this work. It's been kind of therapeutic and cathartic for me to be able to build and problem solve. It's given me a lot of critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills and patience," she said. "Seeing your work when you're done gives you a sense of like, 'Oh, I'm actually capable of doing anything.' It's been really awesome."
She recalled a situation during one of her first days in a construction class, working on a job site building a house.
"My instructor told me he wanted me to build a big wall spanning the length of it. And I kind of looked at him like, 'A wall? Who is he? Who does he think I am?' But, I did it by myself. He just kind of walked me through what to do," she said. "And I built a wall."
"You're kind of thrown to the wolves in the trades," she said with a laugh, before telling a similar story about her first time using a saw while balancing on a ladder.
"I've loved all of my classes a lot and they have offered me so much knowledge and a skill set that I can apply in so many areas of my life," Humphrey said.
She credited her academic success to LLTC carpentry instructors Rocky Carpenter and Saul Saucedo.
"Both of them have been really supportive and encouraging, and they both really just want the best for their students, you can tell that they really care about all of us."
Humphrey said after her unexpected pregnancy she was unsure whether she should put her schooling on hold. Carpenter, the Career and Technical Education Department Chair, pushed her to continue.
"I actually wasn't going to come back to school full time because of my baby. And I decided, 'Oh, I will just come back next year and finish my degree,' and Rocky was like, 'No, you should finish it now and I think you can do it,' and I did it with all A's," Humphrey said. "She's always kind of gently nudged me into doing the absolute most because I think that she believes that I'm capable."
Carpenter said she has been thrilled to see Humphrey's progression and evolution as a carpenter, a mother and a social advocate in the community.
"From day one, her self presentation was a vital part of her success, her punctuality and attendance were a testament to making a commitment to her education," Carpenter said. "Kwe demonstrated a willingness to evaluate information, remain open-minded about finding solutions, and was able to relate cause and effect within the scope of carpentry. Kwe Humphrey is a top-notch critical thinker who has a strong work ethic and has all of the qualities to impact change in our community."
Through her hard work at LLTC and recommendations from her instructors, Humphrey was chosen as the Student of the Year.
Humphrey said her advice to other students in similar situations would be to just put their mind to something and do it.
"On one hand, we have one short life to live. And on the other hand, we have a lot of time to do stuff," she said.
Humphrey's next plans now involve using her newfound skills to build a home for herself and her son. It's important to her to build a home sustainably, she added.
"I have just started the really long process of building a house for me and my son on some land that my family has that's really special to us, and so being able to raise him there is definitely a goal reached for me," Humphrey said.
She also hopes with her degree to bring sustainable building practices to her community at large.
"Upon completing my degree I plan to continue working in carpentry to further my knowledge. As an experienced carpenter one day, I hope to be able to design and build sustainable housing for my reservation and maybe eventually even other reservations around Turtle Island. I also plan to use my skills to help families in need, elders and single mothers have comfortable and safe housing," Humphrey said in her application for Student of the Year.
Humphrey said she felt proud of herself and the decisions she made going into graduation.
"I would say this is one of the biggest accomplishments of my life so far. I'm really proud of myself, because being a Native woman in a field like carpentry, I have all the odds against me. By graduating, I'm proving my dedication to my livelihood and to my son," she said. "I think my proudest moment will be graduating, and especially graduating with my son on my hip. It's been really hard being a single mom and going to school full time during a global pandemic. I give myself credit because I deserve to be proud."
Humphrey and the rest of the LLTC class of 2021 will be celebrated from 11 a.m. to noon on Saturday, May 15, 2021, at the Leech Lake Tribal College campus with a drive-thru graduation ceremony. The event will also be streamed live on the LTTC Facebook page.