LEECH LAKE -- Before coming to Leech Lake Tribal College, David Eischens Jr. wanted to give up. He had spent much of his early adult life incarcerated -- in and out of the system -- but chose to turn his life around.

“I just got fed up with being stuck in the system and not being able to get anywhere,” he said. “I just didn’t care, and I gave the system what they wanted. Now, I’m fighting to give myself what I want, and that’s a better life.”

Now, two years after making that decision, he is graduating with an associate degree in indigenous leadership and big plans to continue his education and make a difference in the lives of others.

Eischens said he chose to study indigenous leadership because the program allowed him to incorporate his knowledge and expertise he learned while living on the streets. He hopes it will allow him to pursue activism, one of his greatest passions.

“My activism centers itself around the need for the state and for non-indigenous people to understand and accept the treaties as they’re written and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of that through the state, unfortunately,” he explained.

He hopes to educate non-indigenous people about the importance of treaties -- why they exist and are still relevant.

“I want to be able to use what I learned and take it out into the general public and educate our neighbors,” he said.

Another of his main goals is to help inspire other young indigenous people to get an education like he did. He hopes more indigenous students will step up and take that path.

"It is very important to us and to the future generations of all people that we educate ourselves and move forward in life," he said. “Going to college and being in that environment has changed my perspective on life."

His proudest accomplishment to date is earning his degree, and said he is immensely proud of consistently making the honor roll during his time in college.

LLTC Dean of Student Affairs Jorge Mendoza said, "David W. Eischens Jr. is without a doubt one of our great success stories."

Eischens plans to attend Bemidji State University in the fall to major in the indigenous studies program.

COVID-19 impact

For Eischens, distance education has been tough, as he said it is harder for him to remain focused. He is also worried about the health and safety of his family, and navigating enrolling at BSU during an uncertain time.

“It has caused me to lose focus on some of the goals and the plans that I have,” he said. “It has created a super huge distraction for me.”

The pandemic has also affected his internship with the Anishinabe Legal Services, which he said "was going awesome." He unfortunately had to suspend his internship after a month due to COVID-19 closures.

He is disappointed because it cost him valuable courtroom experience he was hoping to gain, he said.

“There’s a lot of need for legal representation within our tribal communities,” Eischens said. “There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed."

"I’m just focused on getting an education so I can help better my people in some way,” he added.

LLTC’s commencement was originally scheduled to be held on May 16. Eischens said there is a plan to hold a Zoom commencement to honor graduates, but so far no information on an alternate celebration has been made public by LLTC.