Montana State University

Turn-around shot: Ross-Dick hopes to help others as he was once helped

November 6, 2008 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Nicholas Ross-Dick says he had a rocky start but was transformed positively by the college and MSU experience. The junior majoring in philosophy who hails from Washington's Yakama Reservation, is helping build a mentoring system for American Indian students. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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A helping hand once turned around Nicholas Ross-Dick's college career, so now he's reaching out to others by developing a mentoring system for American Indian students attending Montana State University.

Ross-Dick, a junior majoring in philosophy from White Swan, a community on Washington State's Yakama Indian Reservation, is believed to be only the second American Indian student ever elected to the ASMSU senate. He also is vice president of the MSU American Indian Club and plans on a career in law helping defend juvenile offenders.

But the quiet, yet confident, campus leader might have had a different story had Ross-Dick not made a connection with Jim Burns, MSU's American Indian student adviser, late in Ross-Dick's second year at MSU.

"I was scared to death when I first came here," Ross-Dick said. "I didn't know anyone at MSU. I didn't know anything about Bozeman, Montana. I didn't go out of my room. I had some hard times."

Ross-Dick, who says he is basically a "shy, reserved person," said he picked MSU because it was the first university to send him a recruitment letter while he was a freshman in high school, "and that meant something to me." While he looked at schools in Washington, "when it came down to it, I wanted to get away, have an adventure, meet new people."

Meeting those people proved to be difficult, Ross-Dick said. He didn't feel like he fit in, plus he had to sort through some emotional and financial issues that once seemed insurmountable until he did a couple of things that helped him break through his shell.

The first was that he ventured onto a campus basketball court and a game of pick-up basketball.

"That's where I met my best friend -- doing something I'm passionate about," he said. He said while he's "not Michael Jordan or anything," he can hold his own on the basketball court. Playing basketball allowed him to develop friendships with many non-Native students on campus.

The second thing that helped him was finding a mentor in Burns, whom Ross-Dick says "probably saved my life."

Burns said he recalls when Ross-Dick first came to the Indian Club room.

"Nick had such warmth about him," Burns said. "He genuinely cares about others and we became instant friends."

Burns said because Ross-Dick has gone through his own share of struggles, he recognizes when other students might be struggling "and he reaches out to others around him to offer support. He has a great heart and he cares deeply about people."

Ross-Dick said he, in turn, has had some great support from MSU, including President Geoff Gamble.

"I've developed a relationship with President Gamble," Ross-Dick said. "He's such a good man. He's done so much for me. I don't know how many people understand what a good person he is and how much he's done to help Native American students at MSU. It's been amazing to see that."

Ross-Dick said it helped to know that people at MSU cared about him. He began to feel a part of things.

"Now these people are my family," Ross-Dick says of the beehive of activity in the Indian Club room swarming around him. "This is my home."

Ross-Dick said about a year-and-one half-ago he was joking around with Burns and told him, "You know it would be fun to be in student government.'" Burns encouraged him. "I'd never done anything like it in my life," but he ran and was elected as an at-large candidate for the ASMSU Senate. He said it is an honor to represent Native as well as non-Native students and he has been engaged by the experience of learning how government works.

"We do a lot of hard work," he said. Currently, he is helping on an initiative that would increase the student fee for student activity organizations, which would be a big boost for the MSU Indian Club and its popular spring powwow.

Ross-Dick said the senate experience has cemented his plans to eventually go to law school. A philosophy major, a field that Ross-Dick calls "fascinating and challenging," he would one day like to work as a public defender for juvenile delinquents.

"I have a brother who is in prison and who first went there as a juvenile delinquent and I have an uncle who ran a juvenile corrections institute," he said. "They both spiked my interest in the importance of public defenders for juveniles."

But before that Ross-Dick said he has some work to do at MSU. He is helping to build a mentoring system for American Indian students who first come to MSU, matching them with older students who both know the ropes and know how the new students feel. Ross-Dick said the MSU mentoring program is in its first year and while there are some "kinks to be worked out, people are receptive to it."

"It's a lot different here than back home," Ross-Dick said of the importance of matching new with established Indian students. "It's culture shock. Unless you have been exposed to it, it's hard to understand how hard it is."

Ross-Dick said the mentor program is just one way he hopes to give back to the people at MSU who have shown confidence in him.

"I feel so many people invested in me," he said. "In turn, I will try to keep their confidence by helping (others)."

Six questions with Nicholas Ross-Dick

Why philosophy?
I love the faculty and find philosophy hard, but fascinating. I really enjoy the challenge.

Favorite class at MSU?
Philosophy 400, a seminar on Immanuel Kant with Dr. (Gordon) Corky Brittan. Dr. Brittan is a gentleman. He's scholarly but really makes an attempt to reach out to students.

What advice would you give to students who are having a hard time at college?
First, recognize that you are not trying to please everyone. You have to know yourself. Then, take that step. Do something you really enjoy. You might look around and find someone who enjoys those same things.

What do you do in your rare free moments?
I really like to write. Then, I'm in my own world with my crazy little stories.

Favorite tracks?
I like everything from the Temptations to Aerosmith to Fall Out Boy. I even like country. My grandmother was a big country fan.

Favorite Movie?
"Man on Fire" and "March of the Penguins."

Jim Burns (406) 994-4880, jburns@montana.edu