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 said.
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 programs.
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 between."
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."