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New student from rural Montana seeks degree ‘to help my people, my tribe’

Sariel Sandoval, a math whiz, is braving an out-of-state price tag for her dream education at UC Berkeley

First-year student Sariel Sandoval, who is Native American, poses for a portrait on campus wearing a blue and gold Berkeley T-shirt and large, stylish eyeglasses.

First-year student Sariel Sandoval is a recipient of a very rare Generation Change Scholarship from UC Berkeley. The award is given to domestic non-resident students who are “game changers, trailblazers, solution seekers and revolutionaries.” (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Sariel Sandoval, a first-year UC Berkeley student from the Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana, is a whiz at math. But last May, her joy at being accepted to her dream school quickly turned to sticker shock. How could she pay nearly $72,000 a year to attend — for out-of-state tuition, room, board and books — when non-residents of California, she discovered, aren’t eligible for Berkeley’s need-based grants and most scholarships?

“It was a big shock,” said Sandoval, a member of the Bitterroot Salish, Diné (Navajo) and Pend d’Oreille tribes, whose mother, a substance abuse prevention specialist whom Sandoval calls her “personal hero,” raised five children on one income.

Sandoval could have attended the reservation’s highly-regarded tribal college for free her first year, and, with a high enough GPA, her second year, too. Other schools had offered her admission, and ample financial aid. Still, she wouldn’t budge from Berkeley, a university she’d never seen, but had heard so much about.

For one, a favorite book of Sandoval’s, The Beadworkers: Stories, was written by Berkeley professor Beth Piatote, who also is Native American. Discovering that, said Sandoval, “I thought that a school like Berkeley must be just as amazing as the author. … My mind was made up.”

Ever since, Sandoval said, she’s vowed to “work my butt off, to get whatever financial help I can.” She applied for private scholarships, started a GoFundMe campaign, sewed face masks to sell during the COVID-19 pandemic, and worked in the Flathead Reservation campground’s front office.

So far, her “Help Send Sariel to Berkeley Engineering” campaign has raised $25,500 of a $50,000 goal. And her plight caught the attention of Berkeley’s Financial Aid and Scholarships Office, which awarded her a Generation Change Scholarship, given in very rare instances to domestic non-residents described by the scholarship as “game changers, trailblazers, solution seekers and revolutionaries. … students with the potential to leverage a UC Berkeley education to change their world for the better.” At $30,000, the amount of the scholarship, which is renewable for four years, is roughly the cost of out-of-state tuition.

New student Sariel Sandoval, a Native American from a Montana reservation, poses for her high school portrait against a tree in the woods. She has long black braids and clothing with Native American designs.

Sariel Sandoval, posing here for her high school portrait, is a math whiz pursuing an engineering degree from UC Berkeley. She’s also chosen to be part of the campus’s Native American Theme Program, which includes living with a group of Native American and Indigenous students in Unit 1’s Slottman Hall. (Photo by Carolyn Antoinette Photography)

Those who know Sandoval well say they’re not surprised she’s doing all she can to attend Berkeley.

“It’s admirable that this 18-year-old from a very rural town in Montana that’s very isolated and not as connected to the world decided to take a challenge into her own hands,” said Whitney Williams, who hired Sandoval and her sister, Persephone, to do artwork for the Snowbird Fund that Williams created. The fund supports Indigenous people searching for friends, relatives or community members in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People epidemic.

“Her hustle is really remarkable,” continued Williams, who ran for governor of Montana in 2020 and today is CEO of williamsworks, a social impact consultancy. “People who have been through so much in their lives, particularly women and people of color, have a relentlessness that makes them successful.”

Sandoval’s uncle, Sen. Shane Morigeau (D-Missoula), said that in low-income communities in rural Montana, “the prevailing assumption about college is that it’s unattainable, but some people really push themselves, and Sariel is one of those individuals. … That’s where Berkeley comes in, a place that will motivate her and give her the building blocks to go out and be a leader in our community.”

That’s Sandoval’s plan. “… I am a dedicated worker who intends to come back after college to help my people, tribe and community,” she wrote on her GoFundMe page.

Sariel Sandoval poses for her high school portrait with long, flowing black hair, clothing with Native American designs, and leans against a tree in the woods.

Sandoval was raised on the 1.3- million-acre Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana, home to members of the Bitterrroot Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes. (Photo by Carolyn Antoinette Photography)

A love of traditions, and math

On the 1.3-million-acre Flathead Reservation, home to members of the Bitterrroot Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes — the combined tribal membership there is about 8,000, with about 5,300 members living on the reservation — Sandoval grew up steeped in her people’s traditions. Already as a preschooler, she attended a tribal immersion school.

“We all speak English, it’s just that my parents realized our Native language, Salish, was dying,” she said. “It’s probably one of my best memories, because I learned so much.”

She did learn Salish, which remains a “critically endangered language,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). But when her parents transferred her to another school in third grade, “I forgot everything,” she said, “and since language is my medicine, it really did feel like I’d lost everything.” A few years ago, Sandoval resumed her language lessons.

Sandoval also learned early about Native foods, going into the woods with the immersion school, family and during community events to harvest and collect huckleberries, chokecherries, serviceberries, bitterroot and bearroot. Deer was hunted and dried on racks for consumption in the winter, and it still is today, she said.

“Honestly, one of the most important things that’s had a lasting effect on Sariel is being proud of who she is and where she comes from,” said Morigeau, adding that his niece’s heroes include Native American women in politics, like U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. “That has a major impact, long-term, on youth — learning about yourself through language, culture and stories.”

In sixth grade, Sandoval entered nonprofit Glacier Lake School, the only so-called democratic school in Montana. Students are responsible for their own education, exploring what interests them. There is no set curriculum or academic grades. Each student and faculty member has one vote, and school-wide rules are decided by the majority.

Sariel Sandoval, a new student at Berkeley, looks into the distance through her large eyeglasses and wearing a UC Berkeley T-shirt.

To raise money for her education, which will cost the out-of-state student about $72,000 a year, Sariel Sandoval applied for private scholarships, started a GoFundMe campaign, sewed face masks to sell during the COVID-19 pandemic, and worked in the Flathead Reservation’s campground’s front office. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

But it was in high school that Sandoval discovered her true calling: “I fell in love with math,” she said. During her freshman year, she quickly advanced to geometry and advanced algebra and “could pass those subjects in my sleep,” she said. She even furthered her math skills by taking dual enrollment classes at the tribal college.

Her mother, who thought Sandoval might become a photographer or filmmaker, told her, “Now we know what you really want to do.”

Sandoval also felt led to speak out in state speech and debate championships about issues affecting her community, including cultural appropriation, the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women, public commitment to high-quality Native American educational content in all K-12 classrooms, and the dismantling of privilege.

She belonged to Empower Montana (Empower MT), which trains young people to create safer, more inclusive school communities; Native STAND (Students Together Against Negative Decisions), which advocates for a comprehensive sexual health curriculum for Native high school students; and was named a Hope Mountain Indigenous Scholar of Promise.

Still, as college approached, her math teacher asked, “Do you have any back-ups? Berkeley is a hard school to get into,” when Sandoval told her of her top choice.

A close-up of a sunflower blooming in the new Indigenous Community Learning Garden in UC Berkeley's Oxford Tract.

Sariel Sandoval’s course load includes earning field units at the new Indigenous Community Learning Garden in the Oxford Tract. (UC Berkeley photo by Adam Sings in the Timber)

A home away from home

On March 25 last spring, Sandoval was at a shopping mall when she checked her phone for news of admission to Berkeley. Soon, “I was freaking out. I called my mom, and after that, a lot of people. That was it. My mind was made up.”

This summer, as fall semester approached, she drove to California from Montana for the first time with her mother and three of her siblings, taking two cars so Sandoval could use one while in school. But after witnessing city life in the Bay Area, she said, she decided to forego the car.

“My mother came back down to drive it home,” said Saroval. “This was one of my first impressions of Berkeley: how busy and crowded it is here, definitely different from rural Montana. I think the city has its unique type of beauty, but I am not used to it yet. I miss Montana quite a bit, I miss the scenery, and all my family and friends.”

She’s found a piece of home in Unit 1’s Slottman Hall, where Native and Indigenous students live in mini-suites as part of the Native American Theme Program. They spend three to five hours a week in activities that include a yearlong Native American studies seminar, social events, individual check-ins with a theme program resident assistant, fall and spring retreats, and the creation of a signature event for the entire campus.

“Getting to know everyone has been really exciting and fun,” said Sandoval. “Learning about everyone’s identity and heritage has been eye-opening, truly showing me how vast the Indigenous community is.” Sandoval also plans to get involved with the Indigenous and Native Coalition-Recruitment and Retention Center.

Her fall classes — in math, chemistry, psychology and Native American studies — are “challenging,” she said, “but I am glad that I am trying and that I am here. I have this amazing opportunity right in front of me.” She’ll also be earning field units at the new Indigenous Community Learning Garden in the Oxford Tract.

As for tackling the cost of her education, Sandoval will keep applying for scholarships from year to year. “Some are coming through,” she said, “so I have a lot more confidence in the process.”

Morigeau has complete faith in his niece’s ability to succeed at Berkeley.

“She’s not your ordinary college student, in my mind,” he said. “Berkeley is going to make her really expand herself and realize her talents. It will give her the best chance at life and the things she wants to do.”