On South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota people, many students only dream of going to college. More than 60 percent of children on the reservation live below the poverty line. Statewide, the high school graduation rate for Native American students is less than 50 percent. And life expectancy in Oglala Lakota County, where Pine Ridge Reservation sits, is the lowest in the United States.
But this year, one Lakota student at Red Cloud Indian School defied the negative statistics that continue to plague young people on Pine Ridge. Not only is nineteen-year-old Jacob Rosales going to college this fall, but he was accepted into seven of the nation’s eight Ivy League universities.
“I first learned I was accepted at Yale in December and all I felt was pure happiness and excitement. And then I heard from Harvard, and I was just awestruck,” said Jacob, who was also admitted to Cornell, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, and Brown. “I don’t know exactly how I managed it—but I am truly thankful for where I am right now.”
Jacob always knew he wanted to go to college—and his parents encouraged him to dream big. But his mother, who was born in Germany and met Jacob’s father while working at Oglala Lakota College, also stressed that financial aid would be critical. When she learned how many Red Cloud students had succeeded in earning major college scholarships—like the Gates Millennium—she wanted Jacob to have that same chance. He enrolled at Red Cloud in ninth grade and started dreaming of a career in marine biology.
Jacob’s journey through high school wasn’t always easy. His family lives over an hour away from Red Cloud, making daily transportation to school all but impossible. Jacob’s mom decided to rent a trailer along one of the school’s bus routes so that he could get back and forth to campus. But it meant that he largely lived on his own—separated from his family during the school week and going home only on the weekends.
“I spent a lot of time alone at the trailer during sophomore and junior year. Being away from home has been the sacrifice I’ve had to make over the last four years,” he said. “But being away from home for that long has made me more independent. I’m not nervous about the future…and I’m more confident in my ability to go to college. I’ve grown, and I can see that now.”
That growth came through grasping every opportunity that came his way. Jacob did more than just pursue good grades. He was a leader on the track team and says that running helped him stay focused and grounded when school and life got challenging. He also became part of Red Cloud’s Spiritual Leadership Team—a group of high school students selected to serve as mentors responsible for guiding their classmates through spiritual ceremonies, community service activities, and class retreats throughout the year.
And last summer, at the urging of one of his counselors at Red Cloud, he took part in a summer internship program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) just outside Washington, DC. He helped to staff an NIH lab, working alongside some of the world’s top scientists seeking breakthroughs in the fight against Parkinson’s disease. Although Jacob was always interested in a career in science, the experience opened his eyes to the possibility of becoming a physician.
“At NIH, I was working with a lot of really important figures in the field—people who have done so much to improve our understanding of genetics. It was really inspiring and, suddenly, it really felt like home,” said Jacob. “People on the reservation often get less care or are misdiagnosed. I want to become a general practitioner so that I can help make sure people here get the quality care they need.”
This summer Jacob will return to NIH and serve as part of a clinical team to gain experience working directly with patients. And in the fall, he will begin his pre-medical studies at Yale University.
Jacob credits his close-knit community—including family members, teachers, counselors, and friends—with helping him get this far. But staying connected to Lakota culture and heritage, he says, has been a foundation of his identity. At Red Cloud, he was able to begin learning the Lakota language for the first time: his grandmother spoke it fluently, but she passed away before he could learn from her. And now, as he leaves the reservation for college, he has every intention of carrying his culture and language with him.
“I’m going to a place where very few people know what it means to be Oglala Lakota. So I hope to impact the Yale community by sharing my culture with others,” he said. “Getting an education, keeping my culture alive, and continuing to learn and speak the Lakota language—that’s all part of my plan.”
Jacob also plans to live out the Lakota virtue of Wačháŋtognaka, or living generously and with compassion. One of his college essays—which helped him earn admission to so many elite universities—focused on an experience he had picking up a hitchhiker and what it taught him about the power of kindness. He says he wants to “continuing practicing kindness when I get to college” and in the years to follow. And above all, he wants to come back and serve his people on Pine Ridge, where hope is so urgently needed.
“I always wanted to be someone who helped people—that was the theme of whatever career dream I’ve followed,” he said. “In the future, I hope to come back and impact my community. I grew up here, and while I was fortunate that my life wasn’t as difficult as many other people’s lives, I’ve definitely had my fair share of hardships. I want to be able to show people that if I can make it, they can too.”