Her tribe, her future
Author: Suzanne Pardington
Posted: January 22, 2016

Gates scholar is committed to improving the lives of her people

BROOK THOMPSON was seven years old when 34,000 salmon died on the Klamath River.

She remembers walking down the beach among rows and rows of rotting fish as far as she could see. Drought and low water flow from a dam had contributed to the die-off on the Yurok Reservation in Northern California, where she spent summers with her dad.

“It had a bad omen feeling,” she says. “That was really hard for me, because fish are everything in the tribe pretty much.” 

That summer there wasn’t enough fish to eat, smoke and sell, so the whole tribe felt the economic and cultural hit all year long. 

Thompson, now 20 and a sophomore at Portland State, draws on this early experience to explain why she works so hard in school: She wants to improve the environmental, economic and social conditions for her tribe and others. Her determination has paid off with a full-ride Gates scholarship, acceptance to PSU’s Urban Honors College, a spot on the Dean’s List each term in her freshman year, and a chance to study abroad in New Zealand. 

She credits PSU with giving her all the support she needs to succeed. 

“Even though it is stressful, it is a lot better because of the great resources PSU has,” she says. “I haven’t had a bad teacher yet. I’m not just taking the classes; I’m really learning the content.”

THOMPSON witnessed the effects of poverty and environmental damage from an early age. She developed a strong connection to her tribe and its land by participating in traditional dances, interning in her tribe’s education office, and learning the Yurok language from her grandfather, one of the last native speakers. She’s had a commercial fishing license since age 12. 

“Anytime you pick a plant, you say ‘thank you’ to it, and you pray every time you kill a living thing,” she says. “You think about the generations ahead of you.”

When she was five, Thompson moved to Portland with her mother and visited her dad on the reservation during school breaks. In the city, she doesn’t see the same ties between the people and the land. She hopes to ease the impact of cities on the environment by studying civil engineering at PSU and someday designing green buildings with zero net energy consumption. 

Thompson earned a 3.8 at Franklin High and was named a Gates Millennium Scholar, a program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The scholarship covers undergraduate tuition and living expenses—plus graduate school in certain subjects—for black, Latino, Native American and Asian-Pacific Islander American students with significant financial need. 

Gates Scholars can use the awards at any college they choose. Thompson picked PSU over the University of California, Berkeley for its Honors College, strong engineering program and focus on sustainability. She also received PSU’s Eubanks Memorial Trust Scholarship and Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust Honors Scholarship.

KNOWING her education and living expenses are fully covered has given Thompson the freedom to live on campus, take a heavy course load and join seven student clubs, including the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Society of Women Engineers. 

But her first year was tough. Several close relatives have died in the past few years: her grandfather who helped raise her and taught her the Yurok language, an aunt who was missing for two years before her body was found, and a favorite elder she visited often. She also has dyslexia, which makes college-level writing more difficult. 

Yet Olyssa Starry, an Urban Honors professor, says Thompson let none of her circumstances get in the way of her academic work. She was a standout student with a “let’s get to work” attitude and a passion for sustainable urban design, Starry says. 

“It is very clear to me that Brook has a very strong connection to her cultural heritage,” she says. “I would imagine reconciling this with life outside of the reservation must be challenging. That’s why one of the things that impresses me about Brook is the grace and enthusiasm with which she explores and addresses challenges.”

For one assignment, Starry asked students in her year-long freshman course on The Global City to design a backyard habitat in an open space behind the Honors building. Thompson included a digital sketch of the garden and even specified where to buy recycled materials, which native plants to include, and how to attract butterflies and birds but not mosquitoes.

“Brook was able to incorporate a lot of ideas from the texts we read in class into her design,” Starry says. ”You could also really tell from the details that Brook was ready to implement it.”

Thompson says small Honors class sizes of 25 students, one-on-one writing tutors, the disability and Native American centers and friends in her student groups helped her excel in her first year. PSU’s Roads2Success program, a two-week introduction to study skills and campus life, made her feel confident from the start. 

Last summer and fall, she studied at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and shared a flat with three other students. Her classes included one on the indigenous Maori people, who were colonized at about the same time as the Yurok and struggle with some of the same problems. Thompson wants to take some of the Maori strategies for continuing to speak their native language back to her own tribe. 

“I’m not just going to college for myself,” Thompson says. “I’m trying to improve other people’s lives just as much.”

Suzanne Pardington is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.

Caption: Brook Thompson, a member of the Yurok Tribe, could have gone to any university with her Gates Scholarship but chose Portland State.