When Elwood Ott walks across the stage Friday morning during Haskell Indian Nations University’s commencement ceremony in the basketball gym, he said he would feel a sense of pride.
He’s a 29-year-old father who’s been attending Haskell — off and on — for more than 10 years.
Ott began attending Haskell as a full-time student in 1999, but then switched to working full time in 2001, so his wife could attend Kansas University.
But his desire to get a degree persisted, and he went back.
He took just a few classes here and there at first. He completed his degree by taking 21 credit hours this spring. That was on top of his other responsibilities, including his job as assistant varsity and head junior varsity men’s basketball coach, and a father to his two children, Jordan, 7, and Isaiah, 12.
Originally from Tulsa, Okla., and a member of the Otoe-Missouria tribe, Ott is the first in his family to obtain a college degree. He said he kept at it once he realized early on that a degree would be necessary for career advancement. Later, he gained another motivation.
“I’m trying to show my kids the importance of it,” he said. “I’m just trying to pave the way forward.”
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in American Indian Studies, he has sent out applications to graduate school. Wherever he lands, he hopes to continue coaching.
“I feel like I’m providing youth an opportunity to do something,” Ott said. “I’m helping to turn youth into, basically, men.”
Ted Juneau, head men’s basketball coach and athletics director at Haskell, said just about everyone on campus seems to know Ott.
He said that no matter where Ott turned next, he was going to be successful. He’s got a passion for basketball and a passion for people, Juneau said.
And even though some people kid Ott that he started school with some of his teachers, it’s a testament to his understanding of priorities and a desire to succeed that drove him to finish.
“A lot of other people would have probably just given it up a long time ago,” Juneau said.
Denise Cesare helped hire Ott to run the university’s store that sells apparel and other items. It was one of many on-campus jobs that helped pay for his education.
“I just don’t know of anybody that dislikes Elwood,” she said.
Cesare said Ott often asked about how she was doing and worried about her well-being — although he was juggling work, school and his family.
“He’s always put himself second and everybody else first,” she said. “He took a little bit longer to get his degree, and I think that’s one of the reasons why.”
Ott repeatedly said he didn’t think his story was much worth telling.
Then, he thought about the past 10 years for a moment.
“You know, I do feel like I accomplished something,” he said. “I feel proud.”