Student overcomes adversity, leads his sister to a path of education
August 24, 2017 by Laura Phagan
It may have taken Eric Bennett, graduate of Central Wyoming College, a while to decide his degree path, but now that he has found it there is no way he is giving up on a dream.
Born and raised in New Mexico, Bennett was a natural leader and shaped his future after he enrolled in boarding school in seventh grade; shortly after his parents divorced. Boarding school was not a new concept for him; both his parents attended boarding schools and after he enrolled into a co-ed boarding school his first grade sister followed suit.
“It’s kind of a legacy that we went,” Bennett said about attending boarding school.
The all Native American school had a population much like the town of Riverton with Navajo students being the majority attendees. In addition to typical math, science, social studies and English studies the boarding school studies included Native American studies based mostly on Navajo history and the history of New Mexico. While there, Bennett learned three languages including Navajo, English and Spanish.
“It was the best years of my life,” Bennett said. “It taught me a lot of responsibility. The resident advisors are like your family; I came in as a stranger and we all left as family.”
Throughout his time in boarding school, Bennett always enjoyed being a leader. He ran for vice president for Student Senate and during his freshman year became president after the previous president left. He made the varsity cross-country team as a freshman and became the captain his sophomore year.
“I had the experience and we won state that year,” Bennett said. “Other years we got runner-up but it was really competitive.”
After graduating, Bennett said he never planned ahead. However, his coach signed him up for a college visit at New Mexico Highlands University, where he later received a cross-country scholarship.
“I feel like I was an idiot because I lost the passion for running; it was tough so I quit and stopped running,” Bennett said.
Bennett only spent a year at Highland; quitting to help his family after they lost their house to a fire.
“We came out with what we had on our backs and that took a long time to come out of and rebuild,” Bennett said. “When you lose it, where do you go from there?”
Bennett’s mother had used her investment money to build the home. That loss was overwhelming for Bennett and his family and he struggled to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
Bennett later moved to Phoenix where he said he didn’t focus on his future. He went to a trade school and dropped out after two years. During his time there he did receive a certification as a medical assistant and was working toward becoming an emergency responder.
“I couldn’t deal with blood and I realized that after my first ride-along that it wasn’t for me,” Bennett said.
He also earned a certification in bartending and worked at Chili’s for a short time, also realizing that it wasn’t the career path he wanted for himself.
It wasn’t until he came to Wyoming to visit family for the summer six years ago that he realized he wanted to stay. His grandmother, who is an Eastern Shoshone tribal member, moved back to Wyoming after living in New Mexico for a number of years. His sister was in seventh grade when Bennett decided to move to Wyoming and she decided to move with him. Bennett is now her legal guardian and cares for her, works full time and attends college full time.
“Days are long and busy,” Bennett said. “I have to get my sister up and to school and then I go to school and then to work; it’s hard when your friends want to go out but you can’t.”
But for Bennett, he’s found new direction in life. Being a good role model to his sister and helping her understand the importance of education drives Bennett to succeed.
“My sister wanted different exposure and I think she’s lucky to go to school in another state,” Bennett said. “She’s always helping me and she would help with my ambassador obligations. I am close with my sister; we do homework together and I think that’s why we are both close and successful in school.”
The two were living in a house owned by their grandmother, who has also been a positive support to the two siblings.
“I’m really close with my grandmother and she lives about three miles away,” Bennett said.
Working full time, Bennett, first started working for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and then worked for a youth program called Generation 8, which helps youth learn about unity and helps them become leaders. His previous employment at Boys and Girl Club helped Bennett realize he loved to work with children. Throughout this summer he worked for Eastern Shoshone Juvenile Services as a probation officer.
“This is the whole reason I chose social science,” Bennett said. “I can teach and help children.”
Paying for college his first semester proved to be tough but to overcome this adversity Bennett started applying for scholarships and later received several scholarships including one from Navajo Nation and Frank and Cynthia McCarthy. Bennett also was a student ambassador, a two year scholarship program that focuses on leadership and service.
Now on his way to the University of Wyoming Bennett’s grades, leadership qualities and hard work has paid off once more. Bennett received two chief scholarships; the Chief Washakie and the Chief Manuelito scholarships along with a scholarship from the Griffin Foundation. Bennett said CWC Student Support Services employees Paula Hartbank and Lisa Applehans gave him the resources to not only be successful but to find scholarships that would help him on his way.
I’m super honored, humbled and thankful for a lifetime opportunity. I put a lot of hard work, time and effort to get this far but more importantly I have such an amazing support system who have helped me along the way. ”
“I am determine to finish, I don’t care what it takes or how long but I am going to pursue a master’s degree,” Bennett said. “I’m excited to be finished but not sure I’m ready to pack up and move.”
Bennett’s sister will be a sophomore this year and Bennett said he needed to find a college that would be a good fit for them both. Recognizing the challenge of supporting his sister’s education, but also needing to move forward with his own, Bennett said he knew UW would be a good fit for both of them.
“I think she would like to finish high school here and I could wait until she has completed high school but I don’t want to put my education on hold.”
Whatever path the two choose, Bennett said he’s committed to completing his degree. He credits the support he’s received at CWC with helping him get this far.