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Juggling Life and Graduate School


Michael Running Wolf (pictured left) has had a relatively smooth ride in his quest for a master's degree in computer science at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman. It's not that he didn't have struggles; he did. But his talent, passion, and dedication to serving the Native American community have kept him on track.

The modest Running Wolf gives his department, family, and friends most of the credit for getting him through. "I'm not just a product of my ability," he says. "I want to be known because of my incredible luck, some personal ability, and the incredible support behind me."

This fall, Running Wolf, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, enters the second and final year of his master's program. He advises those new to graduate school life to "be comfortable with what you do, feel good about yourself, have an inner core of people to rely on, and manage your time wisely."

Knowing What Works

Running Wolf applied for a Gates Millennium Scholarship because he knew it would pay most of his undergraduate and graduate school expenses. Unlike most scholarships he received, the Gates scholarship was designed to support its scholars--outstanding, economically disadvantaged African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Asian Pacific Islanders--in any discipline during their undergraduate years. For graduate school, however, Gates Millennium scholars must study science, math, engineering, education, or library science. "If I didn't have Gates, I'm sure I would've entered the workforce instead of graduate school," he says.

When it came time to apply to graduate school, Running Wolf didn't want to leave MSU-Bozeman because he realized that his familiar network of friends and colleagues were vital to his success; they had helped him before. When Running Wolf--who grew up in the tiny, rural village of Birney, Montana--went to college, he experienced culture shock. But his support network helped him deal with his new circumstances. He did well, graduated, and enjoyed the experience.

The First Year of Grad School

Surrounded by familiar settings and faces, Running Wolf's first year as a graduate student was almost routine. He enjoyed it even more than being an undergraduate. He liked not having to take as many classes and the fact that he could tailor his course projects and curriculum to fit his interests.

In his first semester as a graduate student, Running Wolf continued a research project he had begun as an undergraduate, juggling coursework with time in the lab. Running Wolf helped MSU-Bozeman professor Denbigh Starkey on a precision agriculture project, creating 3D visualization tools that allow users--including researchers and educators--to explore relationships among various geospatial and agricultural parameters in hopes of enhancing crop management.

Michael Running Wolf at work

Despite this busy schedule, Running Wolf stayed active in the Native American community, serving as vice president for MSU-Bozeman's American Indian Council (AIC), as a tutor for the university's Designing Our Community (DOC) program, and as a search committee member for director for the American Indian Research Organization (AIRO). Activities like these kept him "sane" in school, says Running Wolf. "I get bored easily, especially when I'm really tensed up during school ? [and] when you have worries, you've got to do something."

The Importance of Time Management

Although Running Wolf was used to juggling responsibilities, he found that his work as a teaching assistant for two courses during his first semester pushed him beyond what he was able to manage gracefully. His Gates scholarship covered tuition and fees, but he needed the assistantship to cover personal expenses. Grading homework and submitting grades each week was tedious work, but the worst came at the end of the semester when he was grading his students' final projects while also completing his own. To survive his first semester, he pulled away from his activities as much as he could. "I became a hermit," he says. "I was forced to do that to some degree."

The following semester, Running Wolf replaced his stressful teaching assistantship with the more relaxed schedule of a research assistantship. Still, he sometimes got in over his head because he couldn't resist getting involved with AIC activities. "It was hard to say no," he says. "I've been part of the organization for so long. I knew things that new people didn't know." That semester, he was in charge of a computer-scoring program that he developed for the university's annual spring powwow competitions and was among the few who organized the powwow. In addition, he maintained AIC's Web site and eight computers for AIC's student lab. He persevered.

A Promising Future

Running Wolf intends to be more pragmatic when it comes to managing his time in the coming years. "I'll definitely cut back early on, as soon as I start feeling the heat," he says. The heat is likely to mount quickly. When he returns from his summer internship with IBM in Portland, Oregon, he will face new challenges, namely, selecting and completing a thesis project and passing a comprehensive exam.

Running Wolf is considering a range of careers within his field, including corporate work, but he doesn't just want to bring home a large salary. His dream job will be one that serves the native community in Montana. "I don't know if I can do it--just make lots of money," he explains. "I won't like myself ?because this type of job does not contribute to society, my culture, and where I came from."

Whatever course he chooses, Running Wolf will very likely find a way to contribute. Right now, he is using part of his internship earnings to create a scholarship for AIC students. "I strive to have a good sense of community."

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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