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When Eric Bennett, from Fort Washakie, first arrived at the University of Wyoming a few years ago, he took to heart the advice a mentor gave him: Become involved on campus, and make a difference.

Eric Bennett, a Fort Washakie senior, recently received the 2020 Willena Stanford Diversity Award at the University of Wyoming. (Erik Kahl Photo)

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Bennett, a senior majoring in secondary education and history with an English as a second language endorsement, met with another Wind River Indian Reservation resident, Reinette Redbird Tendore, when he transferred to UW from Central Wyoming College (CWC). Tendore was named UW’s first Native American Program adviser during the 2017 fall semester.

In Tendore’s office was a plaque honoring her as the Willena Stanford Diversity Award recipient when she was a UW graduate student. The award is presented annually during UW’s Martin Luther King Jr. Days of Dialogue (MLK DOD).

This award was established in 2006 to recognize students who, through their actions, have demonstrated a commitment to enhance and support diversity and equal educational opportunities for all students at UW. The award was created in honor of Stanford, a former member of the MLK DOD committee and a longtime member of the UW faculty who had a strong commitment to the education of all students and made significant contributions to diversity at the university.

“I remember Reinette specifically telling me about this particular award, how she felt and what it meant to her,” Bennett says. “I remember telling her, ‘I want to win this award,’ and she encouraged me to get involved and make a difference. That is where it all began. I set a goal for myself to get involved on campus and with the UW Native community.”

That, he did.

For his involvement on campus the last two years and his commitment to diversity, Bennett recently received the 2020 Willena Stanford Diversity Award.

Bennett has been a mentor the past two years for the Native American Summer Institute at UW. More than 30 Native students are hosted each year, exposing them to college life, multiple career paths and a bonding experience.

“His work with the high school students is both impactful and meaningful,” a Stanford Award nominator says. “Eric is patient, kind and resourceful. He currently is working as a student teacher on the Wind River Reservation. He wants to help Native students see their inner beauty while creating a safe environment for learning, cultural appreciation and positive social interactions. He will no doubt have an impact on the lives of his students and community.”

In addition to a full course load for his major and endorsement, he has served as an Associated Students of UW (ASUW) — student government — senator for the past 18 months. Bennett is the first Native American man to serve as a student senator.

He also has been a College of Education ambassador; a two-year council member for Keepers of the Fire; a Native American Education, Research and Cultural Center student intern; an Alternative Spring Break student team leader; a McNair Scholars Program summer research participant for students from underrepresented groups; and volunteered teaching UW international students English — all while managing to stay on the dean’s list every semester.

“It was a truly busy time for me managing all of this on top of a full class schedule, but I wouldn’t have changed anything, because it has taught me so much about myself that I didn’t know I could do or even handle,” he says. “Little did I realize I was setting an example for other Native American students and students of color. I never considered myself a role model, because I enjoyed doing what I did.”

Bennett also left behind his name on a plaque at CWC for his achievements.

“My goal was no different when I got to UW. I wanted to leave my name behind in some shape or form. I thought I would do that with ASUW before this award, and I was OK with that,” he says. “With the Willena Stanford Award, my name will be left behind again, and that is a big accomplishment for me, because I achieved my goals at a bigger institution like UW.”

He says the award will help other Native students know that “anything is possible, and any goal can be achieved,” especially the high school students he is student teaching back home.

“More Native students now have the courage to get out of their comfort zones and become active on campus,” he adds. “It also lets my high school students know that getting a postsecondary education is possible regardless of where you come from. I hope to influence Native students and students of color to challenge themselves academically and socially.”

Bennett says he wants to continue his education, obtaining a graduate degree in history or American studies, but he also wants to teach high school on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

“Whatever plan feels right at the moment is the plan I am going to go with,” he says. “Eventually, I plan on obtaining a graduate degree and a Ph.D. Those are my ultimate lifelong goals.”

Four other UW students were nominated for the Stanford Award:

— Stephanie Amaya, Bell Gardens, Calif., psychology doctoral candidate.

— Aisha Balogun Mohammed, Ilorin, Nigeria, computer engineering senior.

— Olivia Cole, Cody, social sciences, and gender and women’s studies senior.

— Carlos Gonzales, Buffalo, sociology, and gender and women’s studies senior.

h/t University of Wyoming for sharing the above information and photo. 

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