RED LAKE -- Salena Beasley always said she’d go to college after taking a gap year post-high school, but the years flew by and there was never the time.

A few years ago, she found herself in some trying personal situations. Her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and her husband was incarcerated. Feeling down, she decided to take this time to better herself.

Fulfilling both her mother’s dying wishes and her promise to herself, Beasley will graduate from Red Lake Nation College on Friday, May 21, as the school’s valedictorian and Student of the Year.

She’s following in her mother’s footsteps and hopes to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Bemidji State University in business administration in the fall.

Family is what holds her together, Beasley said, and she hopes her educational journey will inspire her children and grandchildren to pursue their dreams.

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The right time

Coming out of high school, Beasley wanted to take a year off before starting college. It turned into more than two decades.

“I just wasn't ready to go to college,” Beasley said of herself after high school. “I was like, ‘I'm gonna take a year off, and then I'll go back.’ That didn't happen. I ended up starting a family and providing for my family. I was like, ‘Well, I'm gonna go back, eventually.’ It just never seemed to be the right time. I was just trying to figure out life. And then I was like, 'well when my kids go to school, I’ll go back.' I was too busy. I couldn't handle it.”

One day a couple of years ago, she was working an event for Red Lake Chemical Health, where she had a booth at RLNC. She saw a sign advertising class registration, and on a whim, decided to enroll.

A little voice inside herself told her, “Hey, you've been wanting this for so long. Just do it. Just go for it. And stop telling yourself that now's not the right time.”

Throughout her time at school, she faced personal struggles. Her mother was battling terminal cancer. Beasley balanced end-of-life care for her mother with school, work and familial obligations.

She visited her mother after evening classes, who always expressed concern over whether she was sleeping and eating enough. Her mother died in March. Beasley took a week off of school but soon threw herself back into it.

“I just poured myself back into school, because I needed that structure. I just wanted to keep going, it kept me busy, and helped me deal with my grief. My mom wanted me to do it,” she said. “Every time I get to a milestone, I go visit her grave, and talk to her about it. I've included her in so many of my assignments because she's just my inspiration. I think back to my mom just telling me to go for it, that she thinks I could do it.”

Beasley said her husband, who was incarcerated when she enrolled, was also supportive of her schooling.

“I want to use this time that you're going to be gone to finish my education,” she told him. “I was the sole provider for the family as well, and that was difficult. Being his support system, and him being my support system as much as we could, through phone visits and stuff, we figured it out.

"We grew through this process, this really traumatic event that separated us and I feel like we came out the other end stronger.”

Family inspires her and in turn, she hopes to inspire family.

“I feel like I'm being an inspiration to my siblings, my kids, my nieces and nephews and my grandkids,” she said. “I just really stressed the importance of education with them because that's what my parents did with me when I was growing up. You know, they just really wanted me to do well and get good grades. They knew that I could do it if I applied myself.”

Her children and grandchildren will be at her commencement ceremony on Friday to listen to her deliver her valedictorian speech.

Stronger through support

Beasley said going back to school was easier later in life, as she now has more experiences to draw from.

“I just have more lived experience that I'm able to bring to my classroom and my assignments. It made finding content for them easier, because you are exposed to more things versus when you're younger,” she said.

Beasley said she had attended BSU in high school as a PSEO student, and often felt different in large classrooms there, sometimes with few other Native American students.

At RLNC, she said she feels supported and accountable, surrounded by familiar faces.

“It just was more like my friends and family that I was going to school with,” she said. “I know a lot of faculty that works there, so that made it easier. It showed me that Native Americans are succeeding in getting their master's degrees and becoming educators and presidents of colleges and therapists. The possibilities are endless for me.”

Beasley said the faculty at RLNC inspired her and helped her through the tough parts -- personally and academically -- of earning her degree.

“I struggled with quite a bit in my personal life as I was going through my college journey there,” she said. “They have a lot of supportive services for students. They've helped me with car repairs. They have a food pantry. They have tutoring sessions. I utilized all of that to help me stay on track.

“We all have the potential to be successful in school. It takes sacrifice, it takes dedication, it takes a lot of work and long nights,” she added. “Sometimes there are days where it's just overwhelming, and you just want to throw your hands up and be like, ‘I'm done. I don't want to do this anymore.’”

She did it anyway.

Following her mother's footsteps

Beasley said she’s never given much thought to her dream job. She currently works as an administrative officer for a chemical dependency program in Red Lake and said she can’t imagine herself leaving that field after graduation.

“I can't think of doing anything else, I think what I would want to do is just continue doing that work, in whatever capacity that my degree allows me to. Whether it be growing or expanding, or to continue providing services to my community,” she said.

“I would like to transfer to BSU and pursue my bachelor's in business administration like my mother did. I want to follow in her footsteps and do that. I like to take things in small blocks, but I do have a dream of getting my master's in business as well, my MBA, but I haven't decided yet where that's going to be or when,” she added.

Beasley and the rest of RLNC’s class of 2021 will celebrate their accomplishments during a commencement ceremony at 5 p.m. on Friday, May 21, in front of the RLNC building. A mini powwow and fireworks show will follow.