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Nursing student sees God's hand on her life through heritage and scholarship

Along with receiving continued support from her Choctaw tribe, Rachel Wingbermuehle ’21 explored her Native American heritage more deeply at Bethel and one day hopes to give back to her tribe.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

May 29, 2019 | 3:30 p.m.

Rachel Wingbermuehle ’21

Rachel Wingbermuehle ’21 explored her Choctaw heritage through Associate Professor of Communication Studies Scott Sochay’s Exploring Native Cultures course.

“People just want to know where they come from,” says Rachel Wingbermuehle ’21. “They want to know what makes them unique and what makes them them. Learning about the Choctaws helped me to seek out heritage and my culture. I loved it.”

Wingbermuehle, a nursing major, explored her Native American heritage more deeply at Bethel through Associate Professor of Communication Studies Scott Sochay’s Exploring Native Cultures course, part of freshman Inquiry Seminar. Wingbermuehle approached Sochay, who is also of Native American descent, about exploring her tribe in his class. Sochay noted Wingbermuehle’s experience is similar to his own and many others. Many Native Americans don’t grow up on reservations and don’t grow up learning the language or culture; instead, they often delve into their heritage when they reach college.

Wingbermuehle, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, native, maintains close ties to her Native American heritage and her Choctaw tribe based in Oklahoma. She attends Choctaw events, she completed a Trail of Tears Commemorative Walk, and she’s visited the tribe’s capital. But the class allowed her to go deeper.

Wingbermuehle prepared a paper and presentation about Choctaw foster children placed in non-Choctaw foster families, arguing Choctaws should have jurisdiction over tribal members. She explored a national news story of a girl named Lexi. The tribe removed her from a foster family that wished to adopt her. Wingbermuehle explored the context and history around such issues as her tribe is working to keeps its heritage alive. With fewer full-blood Choctaws, it emphasizes placing Choctaw children in Choctaw homes, Wingbermuehle notes. Such cases carry historical context. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Choctaw children were taken from their homes and placed in boarding schools through forced assimilation.

I really feel part of the reason God called me to Bethel was to be a voice of Native American culture here on campus

— Associate Professor of Communication Studies Scott Sochay

Along with broader lessons about her tribe, the class also helped Wingbermuehle learn more about her own family. Her research showed Choctaws were known as an often peaceful people, which is one reason they were an early tribe to relocate. But her discoveries made her think of her own family. “My grandpa, who’s a Choctaw, is the sweetest guy ever,” she says. “He’s so nice and would do anything for anybody. And I’m like, ‘It must be in his DNA.’”

Wingbermuehle is the first person in her family to leave Oklahoma to attend college, as she chose Bethel because of family and friends’ connections to the university. And she’s loved her Bethel experience. “I love how Bethel lets you be yourself and make your faith your own,” she says. And she’s thankful for the support she receives—through her tribe and Bethel—which is vital to her attending Bethel. She received the $3,000 Chata Undergraduate Scholarship through the Chata Foundation. Her tribe and the Choctaw business office both send money each year for books and other needs. Through Bethel, she has received the Dwyer Nursing Scholarship, a Student Ministries Scholarship, and other nursing and student life scholarships. “The Lord has blessed me,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to receive scholarships.”

Wingbermuehle’s scholarships reflect a deeper story. Such scholarships are somewhat new, as many Native American tribes historically did not value American education. Sochay says that largely stems from a history of forced assimilation through boarding schools. Tribal scholarships weren’t available to Sochay, but he received education benefits through the state of Michigan’s Native American Tuition Waiver Act. It guaranteed free tuition at any public college in Michigan to people with a direct blood relative on the 1908 Native American census of Michigan tribes. The act stemmed from the federal government’s failed promises to provide education resources to tribes in Michigan in perpetuity for taking over the territory that would become the state.

That allowed Sochay to earn his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate at Michigan State University tuition free. “Which meant that my cultural heritage is in large part the reason why I’m a professor today,” he says. “Educational resources, they had a huge impact on my life.”

In recent years, Sochay says casino revenues and other resources have opened doors for tribes to offer scholarships. They are focused on fields like nursing, education, and law—all areas that address key issues facing many tribes. Wingbermuehle fits that trend. After graduation, she hopes to follow God’s call and feels drawn to midwifery, as she loves serving babies and mothers. She also hopes to give back to the Choctaw community, possibly by working in a Choctaw hospital or clinic. She says many are dealing with health issues stemming from poverty. Sochay says Wingbermuehle’s desire to give back highlights the benefits and motivation for scholarships. “Going into nursing, she’s really fulfilling the vision of her tribe to get the next generation better educated so they can give back in a good way,” he says.

Sochay followed a similar path. Today, he gives back to his tribe and is Bethel’s leading voice of Native American culture on campus. He teaches courses, gives talks, brings in guest speakers, and plans events. He strives to educate people who are not Native Americans about the culture and its continued relevance today. He cited the “Reclaiming Native Truth” survey from 2018 that found that 40% of 13,000 people surveyed didn’t think Native Americans still exist today. Many of the remaining 60% believe the Native American culture is one big culture, failing to see the complexities and richness of the many individual tribes. Sochay remains a vocal voice on campus and says the vast majority of people welcome his efforts warmly. “I really feel part of the reason God called me to Bethel was to be a voice of Native American culture here on campus,” he says.

For most tribes, Sochay says the most significant issue is how to preserve their culture. And Sochay says it’s fulfilling to see Wingbermuehle excited to pass on her heritage and remain connected with the tribe. “It’s just heartwarming and fulfilling to see the next generation wants to keep the tribal culture alive,” Sochay says.

Wingbermuehle tells the story of how many Choctaw’s changed their race on census cards after being shamed for their Native American Heritage. But her grandfather is proud his family did not. “He takes pride in it,” she says. She is now excited to one day start her own family, and she looks forward to passing on her traditions.

She is pleased with the support she receives from her tribe, and she feels fortunate to be at Bethel. “God’s hand is on my life—for sure,” she says.

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