A Sisterhood of Lifelong Learners


When most people enroll in college or graduate school, they do it for personal enrichment or professional advancement. But for Rosa and Mary Colton, who finished their master’s degrees in special education last fall, those reasons were secondary. Even though both sisters work in schools, their primary motivation for pursuing advanced degrees was to be better moms.

In working with her children’s teachers, Rosa kept hearing the term “IEP” — Individual Educational Program — which is a requirement for students enrolled in special education courses.

“I wanted to know what they were talking about,” said Rosa.

For Mary, it was similar. She was told that some of her children had learning disabilities, and she wanted to understand how to help them do better in school.

For Mary, it’s personal, too; she was a special ed student in high school. “I graduated from high school on the B honor roll without knowing how to read or write,” she said. “My special ed teacher said, ‘I’m gonna have you tested. I think you’re very smart but can’t read.’ She found out I had dyslexia.”

According to Mary, it was her sister who convinced her to pursue her master’s — just like she had talked Mary into going to college several years earlier.

“I wasn’t planning to go to college, but my sister made me,” said Mary. “I said it was going to be too hard with my dyslexia, but she said they would have ways to help me. If it wasn’t for her saying ‘Come on, come on,’ I surely wouldn’t have gone back to college. I would’ve been happy being a nurses’ aid.”

Books on tape were a godsend, as well as speech recognition software (the “magic dragon” Mary calls it) that would help Mary write her papers. Sometimes Rosa would read to Mary.

Mary returned the favor with her exceptional memory, which she attributes to her dyslexia. “I’m a real keen listener,” she said. “When one of your senses doesn’t work right, the others will pick up.”

“I’m glad she has such a good memory because if I didn’t know, she would remind me,” Rosa said. “I’d ask her ‘What were we working on last time?’ and she’d remember.”

They also did most of their studying together on Sundays. “We would either meet at her house or my house and work until all the homework for the week was done,” Mary said. Sometimes one sister would get frustrated and go home, but eventually the phone would ring, and they’d get back to work.

Rosa’s mom initially encouraged her to go to college. “After high school, I tried to go to college off and on, but I drank a lot, so it didn’t work out. After I sobered up, my mom said, ‘Why don’t you go to college?’ so I did.”

At the time, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College had a program in East Lake, so Rosa and Mary started on their A.A. degree with a group of friends, relatives, and neighbors, including Raina Killspotted, Amanda Bruneau, Tabitha Boyd, and Marysue Anderson.

After completing their associate’s degrees, Rosa and Mary started taking classes for the bachelor’s degree from St. Scholastica.

When that program was finished, Mary was satisfied, but once again, Rosa talked her into continuing.

Applied knowledge

They enrolled in the Naadamaadiwin (“Helping one another”) tribal special education cohort, a partnership between the Augsburg University Master of Arts in Education program and the University of Minnesota Duluth Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Language Revitalization.

The program offers a special education license with a focus on tribal communities and learning styles.

The classes are all online, but students meet face-to-face with faculty for orientation and two meetings each semester.

Students also have the option of earning the Master of Arts in Education by taking four additional graduate level courses — the option Rosa and Mary chose.

Even though professional development wasn’t their primary motivation for earning their master’s degrees, Mary and Rosa are using what they learned at work every day.

Rosa, who taught for years at Nay Ah Shing, is now working at Minisinaakwaang Leadership Academy. She misses Nay Ah Shing, but the drive from her home in Minnewawa was too taxing. And now, instead of working on those IEPs as a parent, it’s part of her job as a teacher.

Mary has worked for over 12 years at McGregor, first as an Indian education liaison paid by the Band, but now as an employee of the school district. She’s seen her efforts pay off as children’s grades and confidence improve — both her students and her own kids.

Mary encourages others to pursue higher education, even if they’re getting older. “Just go, because you’re never too old to learn something, and you can always teach something new to someone else.”

For Mary, her accomplishment hit home as she completed her final assignment: a portfolio of her work. “It felt pretty good because I could look at it and say. ‘This is all my work right here in this portfolio.’ It has all my educational background, every class I took. And I thought ‘Yup, I did it now.’”

Rosa agrees that the feeling of accomplishment was worth the effort. It became real when her class got together for a ceremony at Black Bear after completing their certificates, but she’s even more excited about May 10, when she and her sister will attend the Augsburg graduation at US Bank Stadium.