CASS LAKE, Minn. Single motherhood. Tackling college during a pandemic. Battling mental health issues. Being a woman in a primarily male-dominated career field.

None of these things are easy on their own, but Kwe Humphrey somehow has managed to conquer them all at once and thrive while doing so. She is also graduating with straight A's and as Student of the Year.

Her young son, Waase, has been a big part of the journey that ended Saturday, May 15, when Humphrey earned her diploma from Leech Lake Tribal College’s integrated residential builder program.

Thrown to the wolves

Before starting her program at Leech Lake Tribal College, Humphrey was emerging from a dark place.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

After completing a mental health treatment program, she was coping with some personal struggles. Although she didn't plan on attending college, she wanted to be employable and keep herself accountable.

“I needed something to just occupy my time,” she said. “I needed to be accountable to something.”

“When I began my college career I had been struggling with mental health issues for years. I had just gotten out of a mental health treatment center to stabilize after a suicide attempt,” Humphrey wrote in an essay for her Student of the Year application. “I registered for classes the next semester and despite struggling to get caught up in basic skills, trouble focusing, worried I couldn't pay my bills, I succeeded with all A's.”

Humphrey said she could’ve “picked her program out of a hat,” when she applied to school, but settled on the integrated residential builder program because she thought she’d be able to find a job after graduation.

She quickly realized the program aligned with her goals by incorporating Anishinaabe values into construction. She found a passion for bringing ideas on paper to physical realities.

Kwe Humphrey and her son, Waase, on the campus at Leech Lake Tribal College on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Humphrey will be graduating on Saturday with a degree from the integrated residential builder program. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Kwe Humphrey and her son, Waase, on the campus at Leech Lake Tribal College on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Humphrey will be graduating on Saturday with a degree from the integrated residential builder program. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this work. It's been kind of therapeutic and cathartic for me to be able to build and problem solve. It's given me a lot of critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills and patience,” Humphrey said. “Seeing your work when you're done gives you a sense of like, ‘Oh, I'm actually capable of doing anything.’ It's been really awesome.”

She recalled a situation during one of her first days in a construction class, working on a job site building a house.

“My instructor told me he wanted me to build a big wall spanning the length of it. And I kind of looked at him like, ‘A wall? Who is he? Who does he think I am?’ But, I did it by myself. He just kind of walked me through what to do,” she said. “And I built a wall.”

She credited her academic success to Leech Lake Tribal College carpentry instructors Rocky Carpenter and Saul Saucedo.

“Both of them have been really supportive and encouraging, and they both really just want the best for their students, you can tell that they really care about all of us.”

Humphrey said after her unexpected pregnancy she was unsure whether she should put her schooling on hold. Carpenter pushed her to continue.

“She's always kind of gently nudged me into doing the absolute most because I think that she believes that I'm capable," Humphrey said.

Carpenter said she has been thrilled to see Humphrey’s progression and evolution as a carpenter, a mother and a social advocate in the community.

“From Day 1, her self-presentation was a vital part of her success, her punctuality and attendance were a testament to making a commitment to her education,” Carpenter said. “Kwe demonstrated a willingness to evaluate information, remain open-minded about finding solutions, and was able to relate cause and effect within the scope of carpentry.”

Through her hard work at Leech Lake Tribal College and recommendations from her instructors, Humphrey was chosen as the Student of the Year.

Humphrey said her advice to other students in similar situations would be to just put their mind to something and do it.

“On one hand, we have one short life to live. And on the other hand, we have a lot of time to do stuff,” she said.

Building community

Humphrey’s next plans now involve using her newfound skills to build a home for herself and her son. It’s important to her to build a home sustainably, she added. She also hopes with her degree to bring sustainable building practices to her community at-large.

“As an experienced carpenter one day, I hope to be able to design and build sustainable housing for my reservation and maybe eventually even other reservations around Turtle Island. I also plan to use my skills to help families in need, elders and single mothers have comfortable and safe housing,” Humphrey said in her application for Student of the Year.

Humphrey said she felt proud of herself and the decisions she made going into graduation.

“I would say this is one of the biggest accomplishments of my life so far. I'm really proud of myself, because being a Native woman in a field like carpentry, I have all the odds against me. By graduating, I'm proving my dedication to my livelihood and to my son,” she said.