Haskell graduate learns how to move around obstacles in her path
photo by: Kathy Hanks
Caroline Wiseman didn’t fall in love with Kansas when she first arrived at Haskell Indian Nations University in the fall of 2014.
She’s still not a fan of the state’s climate or terrain, but unlike those who make a quick exit after deciding they don’t like a place, Wiseman stuck it out. Friday, she is receiving her diploma during spring commencement at 10 a.m. in Coffin Sports Complex.
“At first I didn’t think I’d make it here,” said Wiseman, 24, sitting in Tommaney Library, on Tuesday afternoon, as she reflected on her time at Haskell.
More than anything, she was homesick. She came to Kansas from Anchorage, Alaska, where mountains framed one side of the city and Cook Inlet the other. She is part Inupiaq, a native tribe originating in the western part of Alaska near the Bering Strait. Not only did she feel landlocked in Kansas, but her body was also used to a cooler climate.
She was so certain she didn’t belong in Kansas that when she left after her sophomore year, she told the registrar she wouldn’t be back. But during the summer in Alaska, she began to have second thoughts.
“I got to thinking, ‘I should go back,'” Wiseman said. “There was nowhere else I could graduate debt free.”
Because it’s a federally operated tribal university, tuition at Haskell is free for Native Americans. Wiseman said she pays only $715 a semester for room and board.
Returning to Lawrence, she was determined to make it work at Haskell.
“If I kept myself busy all the time I wouldn’t think that I wasn’t where I wanted to be,” she said.
However, in the fall of 2016, she was faced with a medical condition more tangible than homesickness. Out of the blue, a classmate asked her why her eye was acting funny. She had felt twitching but didn’t know it was visible. Before long the entire right side of her face began to feel weird. She looked in the mirror and was shocked.
“I thought I was having a stroke, I couldn’t move the right side of my face,” she said. She was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, which according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, afflicts about 40,000 Americans, of any age, each year. It causes sudden, temporary weakness in facial muscles, making half of a person’s face appear to droop. It can clear up in a matter of weeks, months or sometimes years. However, for a small number of people symptoms of Bell’s palsy last a lifetime.
Wiseman was given steroids, which didn’t work, and then antiviral medicine, which didn’t help. She was told to do facial exercises, which she continues to do.
Her face was sore and talking was difficult. She used Band-Aids to tape her eye shut every night.
“I lost my face,” she said.
Wiseman admits it left her feeling down.
“I’m a very proud person. I didn’t like seeing my face,” she said.
Again, she thought about quitting school. A competitive student, with a high GPA, she began staying in bed instead of going to class. She felt embarrassed. Some classmates made fun of her.
She didn’t allow herself to wallow in pity for too long.
“I knew what I needed to do even though I didn’t want to do it,” she said. It helped that a friend would pull her out of bed and make her go to class.
“I decided it is what it is,” she said.
To build her confidence, she took a bold step and ran for Miss Haskell in the spring of 2017. Each year the university selects a Miss Haskell and Haskell Brave. Wiseman said it’s a tribal cultural pageant. The competition includes an interview, a written essay, public speaking and talent presentation. She won, along with Baron Hoy, and they served as ambassadors for the college for 2017-2018.
“I did it as a way to accept myself,” she said. She’s proud of the fact that she’s the first Alaskan to be Miss Haskell.
“Being Miss Haskell helped me to advocate for my school, represent my school and find my pride within my school,” she said. During her reign she recruited for Haskell, all the while remaining on the president’s honor roll while taking 18 credit hours.
To this day, she has not completely recovered from Bell’s palsy.
“I am not back to where I was and I don’t think I ever will be,” she said.
But, she says her five years at Haskell have taught her how to move around the obstacles that get in the way of life.
After receiving her diploma Friday, she will drive home to Alaska. She has accepted a job teaching fourth graders in Nome, overlooking the Bering Sea.
She will be near water, her grandmother and cooler temperatures.
“I will be closer to my heritage,” she said.