By Annie Cantrell Contributor

This December, President Obama
named a Montana State University
graduate head of the newly created
White House Initiative on
American Indian and Alaska Native
William Mendoza, who earned
a master’s degree in educational
leadership from MSU in 2010, will
head the initiative that is designed
to help expand educational opportunities
and improve educational
outcomes for all American Indian
and Alaska Native students.
The initiative also aims to further
opportunities for the students
to learn their native languages,
cultures and histories and receive a
complete and competitive education
that prepares them for college and a
career. It was established by an executive
order that President Obama
signed Dec. 2.
In a release from the U.S. Department
of Education, Mendoza said
the initiative will work to identify
pathways that enable those who
have dropped out to re-enter the
education training pipeline, acquire
industry-recognized credentials and
obtain sustainable jobs, and expand
access to high-quality education
programs leading to career advancement,
especially in the STEM (science,
technology, engineering and
math) fields.
“We’re working
hard to reduce the
American Indian
and Alaska Native
student dropout
rate and making
sure students who
stay in high school
are ready to start
their career by the
time they complete
college,” Mendoza
Previously, Mendoza
was acting director
of the White
House Initiative
on Tribal Colleges
and Universities,
or WHITCU. The
office works to
ensure that the
nation’s tribal colleges
and universities
are more fully
recognized, better
informed and given
full access to federal
Mendoza, who is an enrolled Oglala
Sioux and has deep Sicangu Sioux
roots, grew up on the Pine Ridge
and Rosebud Indian Reservations in
South Dakota.
Before enrolling in MSU’s Indian
Leadership Education and Development,
or I LEAD, program, Mendoza
received a bachelor’s degree from Fort
Lewis College in Durango, Colo. He
also attended Haskell Indian National
University in Lawrence, Kan.
Then, he worked as a high school
teacher in Pine Ridge, S.D. He said
earlier this year in an interview with
MSU that he appreciated that teachers
have a tremendous ability to make
a difference in students’ lives, but he
was also frustrated by the limits of
what he could do as a teacher.
“Every time I let my students go out
of my classroom, I felt like I was
letting them go into harm’s way,”
Mendoza said. “So I decided, ‘I need to
do more.'”
With a desire to be more involved
in school reform, Mendoza considered
becoming a principal, where
he thought he would have opportunities
to make lasting impacts.
That’s when he discovered MSU’s I
LEAD program, which, since 2006,
recruited, educated, certified and
placed American Indian educators
in administrative positions in
schools with high populations of
American Indian students.
“I was excited to see a program
that catered to American Indians,”
Mendoza said. “At the time, I knew
a lot of representatives of American
Indians in (principal and superintendent)
positions were few and far
Mendoza said he left the program
with “tremendous knowledge” and
has been able to apply that knowledge
to his work.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne
Duncan, who announced Mendoza’s
appointment, said Mendoza’s
“exceptional leadership in reinvigorating
collaboration between
federal agencies, educators and
tribal leaders will be invaluable as
we move forward in addressing the
challenges that face our American
Indian and Alaska Native students.”