Fellowship: 20 Years Out

What’s the biggest obstacle to opportunity students in North Dakota’s public schools face? “Poverty,” says Rita Kelly (BF’94), a former high school principal in Bismarck. “I can’t think of anything bigger.”

Twenty years ago, Kelly won a Bush Fellowship that allowed her to earn a Ph.D. in school administration, writing her doctoral dissertation about the experiences of Native American students in urban schools. One lesson she took away: Teachers need more training when it comes to understanding the daily challenges faced by low-income kids. “Things look very different, depending on where you’re standing,” Kelly says, adding that it was once a “revelation” to her that schools had to send food packages home with many students to ensure they had enough to eat over the weekends. “You have to be an extraordinary child to overcome the effects of poverty, but not everyone can be that extraordinary.”

Now retired from her role overseeing gender and race issues in North Dakota’s Department of Instruction, Kelly hasn’t stopped advocating for Native American and minority students in her state:  “If these problems were simple we’d have solved them a long time ago. But they’re not simple. The deeper you go, the more layers you find. It’s humbling.” —Nick Coleman

Rita Kelly (Photo Tom Roster)