MISSOULA – At first meeting Mariah Omeasoo, a University of Montana senior, might seem like a normal college student trying to get through finals week. And for the most part, she is.
But when she’s asked to reflect on her UM experience during the last four years, that’s when the tears come.
“It was really hard,” Omeasoo said.
She apologizes, takes a minute, wipes her cheek with the sleeve of her sweatshirt and adjusts her posture.
“I always tell myself, I’m just a kid from the rez,” she said. “And I’ve been thinking a lot about how I got here. I really didn’t think I would graduate.”
Quiet and unassuming, Omeasoo is from Browning and the Blackfeet Nation. She’s the third person in her family to graduate from UM, following two older brothers, Vince and Marcus Omeasoo.
“Missoula was always a second home for me, so it made sense for me to come here,” she said. “My brothers both majored in business, and I guess I always sort of knew that was my path.”
Her journey to UM began at Browning High School, where academics came easily to her. Her teachers encouraged her to start planning to attend college when she was a sophomore.
And in the fall of 2017, Omeasoo enrolled as a UM freshman in the honors college, with several academic scholarships in hand.
That’s when the culture shock hit.
“When you’re the only Native person – surrounded completely by white students who are all smart and high-achieving and never running into someone like me – it feels like you don’t belong,” she said.
Like many UM students – before they find their footing as a college student – a feeling of loneliness can set in.
When she began coursework in the College of Business, Omeasoo didn’t see many Indigenous peers. She felt overwhelmed academically in her accounting and economics classes, and she didn’t have much experience asking for help.
“In my Tribe, you’re just always surrounded by people who know you and asking for help isn’t something I ever had to do,” she said. “So, it was really isolating. I didn’t think I was going to pass my classes. I felt I like I didn’t belong.”
So, one day, she called her mom up and told her she was coming home.
Her mom’s reply was, “OK, quit.”
“I think she said that on purpose,” Omeasoo said. “She knew by giving me permission to drop out, that I wasn’t going to. I’m too stubborn.”
Mom’s strategy worked. And that’s when things started changing.
Omeasoo dug her toes in at UM. She developed a relationship with UM Regents Professor of Marketing Jakki Mohr, who mentored her outside of class and helped her navigate and perform in her business classes.
“While other students are quite comfortable learning through talking, Mariah is more reserved,” Mohr said. “After seeing Mariah’s superior performance on exams and in-class writing assignments, I realized I had a quiet genius sitting in front of me. That led me to reach out to her to learn more about how I could support her educational goals and her interests.”
Then she joined UM’s Kyiyo Native American Student Association and started to hit her stride. The Kyiyo student group organizes UM’s annual Kyiyo Pow Wow, one of the oldest college powwows in the nation.
Wilena Old Person, Kyiyo adviser and program coordinator in UM’s College of Health, said she felt a natural pull toward Omeasoo. After all, Old Person is Blackfeet, too, and remembers just how alienated and out of place she felt as a history major at UM.
“Mariah is shy, but she’s incredibly resilient and a natural leader,” Old Person said. “A lot of the other Kyiyo students looked up to her. She’s very mature.”
Omeasoo eventually became vice president of Kyiyo and worked closely with Old Person and Gisele Forest as staff advisers for the student-run powwow. She said finding mentors on campus helped her feel like she could stick with it through graduation.
“I always said, ‘I’m a just a kid from the reservation’ – that it was a negative – and now I think that there’s power in that,” she said. “You have to remember where you come from and know that there are lots of opportunities. Getting there just looks different for some of us.”
American Indian and Alaska Native students drop out of college at about twice the national rate. Understanding the diversity of experiences students bring with them is something the University is learning more about from its Native students. Since 2018, Native student undergraduate enrollment at UM’s mountain campus is up 23% and the retention rate for Native students is up 23%.
“‘Mariah’s presence has enriched our community; she is eager to give back and to continue making a difference,” said Tim Nichols, dean of the Davidson Honors College. “Learning from her will help us improve the UM experience for other Native students in the future.”
Omeasoo ordered her mortarboard graduation cap as early as possible. She sent it up to her mom in Browning, so there would be plenty of time for her to bead it for UM’s Commencement Ceremony on Saturday.
“I can’t wait to wear it, it’s a symbol for my Tribe, for me and the future.”