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BHSU student earns prestigious internship and will display exhibit at Smithsonian

Black Hills State University student Mary Jo May, senior social science education major from Kyle, earned the opportunity of a lifetime through the prestigious Washington Internships for Native Students (WINS) program. She was one of only three students from South Dakota and 100 students nationwide selected for the program, which provides qualified students the opportunity to build leadership skills while living, studying, and interning in Washington, D.C. May worked in Historic Preservation at the Department of Veterans Affairs and created an exhibit as a result of her research. She was the only intern to have her exhibit selected to be on display at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian.
May's exhibit that will soon be on display at the Smithsonian.

Black Hills State University student Mary Jo May, senior social science education major from Kyle, earned the opportunity of a lifetime through the prestigious Washington Internships for Native Students (WINS) program. The internship led to the creation of an exhibit that will be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian.

May was one of only three students from South Dakota and 100 students nationwide selected for the program. She took several courses at American University in Washington, D.C., and worked in Historic Preservation at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Several of her courses focused on Native American public policy concerns. Her housing, courses, and meals were all paid for as part of the program and she received a stipend for her internship work.

The WINS program offers qualified students of sovereign American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian nations the opportunity to build leadership skills while living, studying, and interning in Washington, D.C., gaining professional, real-world work experience.

During her internship, May conducted research at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Women's Memorial Archives, and many other museums in the area. Through her research, she wrote articles on topics such as Native American women veterans, Native American Medal of Honor recipients, and Native American scouts. She also researched famous Native Americans in the military including Ely Parker, a lieutenant colonel who served adjutant to General Ulysses S. Grant and was later appointed to Commissioner of Indian Affairs - the first Native American to hold that position; and Ira Hayes, who was one of the six famous men in the iconic photograph of the flag raising on Iwo Jima during World War II.

When her internship concluded, she was asked by her supervisor at the Department of Veterans Affairs to accept a paid position to continue her work when she returned home. She accepted the offer and continued working from home in Spearfish through December. As a result of her research, an exhibit was developed and displayed at American University and is now on display at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Within the next few weeks, May’s exhibit will be put on display at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian. Of the participating interns, hers was the only one selected for display at the Smithsonian.

May spent time researching Native American women in the military from South Dakota, including Marcella LeBeau, from Eagle Butte, and Ola Rexroat, from Box Elder. Her goal is to eventually bring her exhibit to South Dakota – at the Ft. Meade Veterans Affairs Center or at the center in Hot Springs.

May’s exhibit included details about Rexroat, who fought her way through extreme poverty and became the only Native American to serve her country as a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot (WASP); she later held the rank of captain in the United States Air Force. Also featured in the exhibit is LeBeau, who was a member of the Army Nurse Corps during World War II, had a 31-year career as a nurse with the Indian Health Service in Eagle Butte, and is a founding member of the North American Indian Women's Association. May had the opportunity to interview LeBeau when she returned to Spearfish to continue her work. “She is a very interesting woman. There is quite a bit of information on the exhibit about individuals from South Dakota and I think many would enjoy it,” she said.

The Gates Scholar noted how grateful she was for the experience and how much she learned from it. “Overall, the internship was an amazing opportunity that opened my eyes to so much that I did not know. I learned a lot about other Native American tribes in all parts of the country,” said May.

She was awarded the Gates Millennium Scholarship during her senior year at Bennett County High School. This prestigious scholarship allowed her to attend BHSU to further her education and meet her goal of becoming a teacher. The Gates Scholarship is the nation's largest minority scholarship program and is funded by a $1.6 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Recipients are chosen through a highly competitive process for their academic achievement, community service, and leadership ability. Gates Millennium Scholars may also be awarded graduate school funding for continuing their education in the areas of computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or science.

May was recognized and honored this month by the South Dakota Legislature for her accomplishments in the WINS program and for the selection of her work to be displayed at the Smithsonian. She plans to graduate from BHSU in December 2011 and is eager to get into the classroom and begin teaching and sharing her passion for American history. 

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