Maija Cruz may be the only MATC alumna in history to take Adult High School courses by day while spending her evenings and weekends taking associate degree classes. But not much stops Cruz when she has a goal in mind. She is on track to graduate with a bachelor's degree in psychology with a focus in "mind, culture and society" from Stanford University in June 2014. She is considering several options following her graduation. She intends to continue on to law school, get dual law and master's in business administration degrees (JD/MBA), or begin an entrepreneurial venture.
While most teenagers were in high school, Cruz was living with her aunt, Terry Bartlein, in California, practicing figure skating in hopes of qualifying for the Olympics. She was at home in Milwaukee nursing a skating injury in 2001 when her aunt had a tragic accident that left her a quadriplegic. Cruz and her mother Sheilamarie Schuk brought Bartlein back to Milwaukee so they could care for her and for Cruz's grandmother, who suffered a massive stroke weeks later.
Between following her dreams of skating and caring for her aunt and grandmother, Cruz reached the age of 19 without attending a day of high school. In 2005, her mother gave her an ultimatum: Enroll in MATC's Adult High School or move out of the house. "She didn't want me to miss out on my education," Cruz said. "Both my mom and aunt attended MATC's Adult High School and both continued on and studied barbering and cosmetology at MATC, so they were familiar with the quality of the college," Cruz said.
Cruz will graduate from Stanford University in June 2014 with a bachelor's degree in psychology.
Startled by her mother's directive, Cruz investigated attending the Adult High School. A counselor told her it would take at least three years to complete the program since she had no high school credits.
Finished Adult High School in Record Time
"I was so upset by that," Cruz said. "I decided I would do it in less time. I knew I could do it." Cruz graduated from MATC's Adult High School in December 2006 after 18 months of study. She simultaneously took GED tests because she wanted get an early start on associate degree courses. A GED or a diploma from the Adult High School was necessary to begin those classes. She took associate degree courses in fall 2006 while finishing her high school diploma.
Cruz said she enjoyed Adult High School. "I loved interacting with people on alternative paths in life," she said. "The classes were not full of teenagers who were in school because they had to be. People were in classes because they wanted to be there. There were people at all stages of life – people with babies, people with grandchildren. The classes put me in a good 'head space.' Adult High School was the best possible path for me to be on."
As an MATC student, Cruz celebrated her Ojibwe Native American heritage by becoming involved in the college's NASM (Native American Student Movement). As a NASM leader, she coordinated MATC's Powwow one year with assistance from now-retired advisor Greg Johns. Held annually at MATC to celebrate Native American culture, the Powwow features dance, drumming, songs and food.
Raising Awareness of Native American Culture
"Native Americans are one of the most underappreciated, disrespected groups of people in this country," she said. "It's historically important to keep the culture alive. There are more than
565 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., with nearly as many different languages. Native Americans deserve so much respect, but they tend to be reduced to either a mascot or a Pocahontas costume at Halloween in our society. We're trying to change that by raising people's awareness of the culture."
As Cruz took associate degree classes, she began to think about continuing to a Wisconsin four-year college or university. Numerous MATC instructors and Adult High School administrators urged Cruz to consider continuing her education and to open her mind to all possibilities.
Cruz was the chairperson of Stanford's Powwow in 2012. The event draws about 30,000
people annually. Participants are shown doing the round dance.
"So many people at MATC recognized that I was capable of doing more before I realized it," she said. "They pointed out my options and abilities. No one was satisfied with letting me be mediocre. I've never been satisfied with being mediocre, either."
"So many people at MATC recognized that I was capable of doing more before I realized it.
They pointed out my options and abilities. No one was satisfied with letting me be mediocre.
I've never been satisfied with being mediocre, either."
Cruz attended a five-day seminar at Harvard University through a program called College Horizons, designed for Native American students who are the first generation in their families to who wish to earn bachelor's degrees. Participants learned about resources, financial aid, application processes and received recommendations about which colleges and universities advisors believed would best fit each individual. Stanford was among the 10 colleges recommended for Cruz.
The idea of leaving home to finish her bachelor's degree had not occurred to Cruz early in the process, but once again, her mother pushed her toward growth opportunities. She insisted that Cruz continue on to get her bachelor's degree and live in college housing to get the full college experience, whether she stayed in the Milwaukee area or ventured further away.
Advocate for Native Americans and Sexual Assault Victims
After graduating from MATC in 2008 with an associate in arts degree, Cruz chose to attend Stanford, which has the largest Native American community of all U.S. colleges, according to Cruz. She became immersed in the university and the Native American Cultural Center. In 2012, she was appointed the chairperson of Stanford's Powwow, which draws about 30,000 people annually. "Being chair of the Stanford Powwow showed me that I had skills I didn't know I had. It taught me about myself, about leadership and multi-tasking. I like being in the driver's seat and seeing things from a bird's-eye view. People call me an overachiever, but I do it to give back to the Native American community."
She also is active as an advocate for sexual assault awareness at Stanford. Cruz, herself a victim of sexual assault, serves on a sexual assault survivors committee, volunteers at a women's center and works with Stanford's Men Against Abuse Now (MAAN) group.
"Both sexual assault victims and Native Americans are perpetually assigned the role of 'victim' by society," Cruz said. "Society doesn't know how to deal with individuals in either group so they tend to be blamed for their perceived status. It's not the victims and survivors that need pity. Work needs to be done with the way society views people in these groups. We have to stop blaming the victims. Instead, we have to fix the system that victimizes."
Cruz graduated from both MATC's Adult High School and MATC's School of Liberal Arts and Sciences before transferring to Stanford University in California.
As Cruz looks at continuing her education or starting a business after graduation, she reflected on how far she has come since she started Adult High School. "Without the support and direction of people in MATC's Adult High School and my family, none of this would have happened. I am so grateful to them. What they say is true … 'It takes a village.'"
Cruz (far right) is shown with housemates from Stanford's Native American theme
dorm Muwekma-Tah-Ruk.Residents hold an annual tea party on the lawn.