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Minnesota Indian Education Association: BSU student wins Outstanding Student of the Year award

Bemidji State University student Gabriel Wakanabo received the Minnesota Indian Education Association's outstanding post-secondary education student of the year award Oct. 6. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Bemidji State University student Gabriel Wakanabo, 29, is the Minnesota Indian Education Association's "outstanding post-secondary education student of the year."

At an Oct. 6 ceremony in Tower, Minn., Wakanabo was given a plaque and a $500 scholarship.

His involvement on campus and outreach efforts in the community is why Don Day, executive director of the BSU American Indian Resource Center, nominated Wakanabo for the award.

"He stands out," Day said. "He shows really good character. He is an outstanding student on campus and is a real nice man."

Wakanabo, originally from Bemidji and a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, graduated from Bemidji High School in 1999 and enrolled at BSU in 2000. One year later he left school to serve in the military with the U.S. Marine Corps. He returned to BSU in 2007 and has since been a fulltime student.

In 2004, Wakanabo was injured while completing his second tour of duty in Iraq. He received a Purple Heart military award. After returning home, Wakanabo said he sought help from BSU students who were also military veterans.

In 2009, Wakanabo and a handful of other students resurrected the BSU Veterans Club, which had not been active in many years. At this year's BSU homecoming football game, Wakanabo presented the colors with BSU's honor guard unit.

"It was the first time BSU ever had a veteran's color guard on campus," he said. "That was a proud moment."

Wakanabo said he enjoys helping others make positive life choices on and off campus.

"By helping others I feel like I plant a seed somewhere," Wakanabo said. "That's one thing that I've sort of latched onto and have a passion for."

Wakanabo is a member of the Freedom Defenders Veterans Memorial Board and is a First Vice Commander with the Ralph Gracie Post 14 American Legion. In 2009, Wakanabo and a peer started the Greater Bemidji Veterans Support Group.

As a BSU student, Wakanabo started an American Indian radio show on FM 90, which plays from 9-11 a.m. Mondays. The show features Indian music, as well as other genres such as of Hawaiian and Alaskan music.

Wakanabo is a junior senator on the BSU Student Senate. He is also the campus coordinator for the Minnesota State University Student Association.

When asked why he is so involved, Wakanabo said:

"I swore an oath in service, and even though I'm not in uniform anymore, I have a deeper appreciation for what service means," he said. "You can serve your country just by participating in something."

Wakanabo said he feels he's been given a second chance at life after surviving an explosion in Iraq.

"I look at it as living on borrowed time," he said "Actions speak louder than words. I want to lead by example."

Wakanabo said he is not yet sure what he wants to pursue after college. He has a list of possible life paths, including law school, journalism, becoming a publisher, working for nonprofit organizations, becoming a grant writer, an entrepreneur or going into politics.