Student Spotlight: Vernon Gatewood transforms his life

“Everything was stacked against me, but I made the decision to become a positive role model for my family and peers by enrolling at Northland Pioneer College,” said Vernon Gatewood, a student at NPC’s Whiteriver Center.

Born in Whiteriver, but raised in the small town of Cibecue within the White Mountain Apache Nation borders, Gatewood recounts being a troubled youth who was kicked out of school, became involved in gangs, and was in and out of prison. It was during one of those prison terms that he was forced to complete his GED, and ultimately decided to pursue higher education at the NPC Whiteriver Center.

“At first I thought that a GED was all the education I would ever need. But I soon learned there is more to life than a GED,” he said. “I made the decision to give everything up for the benefit of my family.”

“Everything” included his gang involvement. “A door opened up, and I saw an opportunity to exit the gang life and make a better life for my family and myself,” explains Vernon, making two tight fists.

Family is important to Vernon, as he speaks proudly of “my two beautiful daughters, who live out of state,” his role as a “single dad” caring for nieces and nephews, and helping out his mom, who has worked at the Whiteriver Hospital for over 30 years. “If I can overcome the odds stacked against me, anybody can do it. You have no excuse not to complete your education,” he tells his peers and “homies.”

Vernon first came into the NPC Whiteriver Center to use the Internet to do research for tattooing patterns. “I saw a flier about the welding program and asked Kelley about it. All of the staff made me feel welcome and at ease.” Kelley Harvey-Brannon is the manager of NPC’s Whiteriver Center. Staff members helped Vernon enroll in the general education classes he would need to obtain his associate’s degree in welding. He inquired about the Federal Work-Study program at the college. Once Vernon completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the necessary paperwork, Kelley offered Vernon a federal work-study position at the center. “I felt like I knew the staff at the Whiteriver Center for a long time, and yet we had just met.” In his interaction with college staff, Vernon jokes with others as though they are all part of a big family.

“I want to use my welding degree to benefit the tribe in areas in which welding is needed in the future, working on the Miner Dam project, and for my family. This is where my heart is at – on the reservation.” He plans to complete his general education requirements first, and then make the commute into Show Low for his welding certification classes.

Vernon enrolled in a history class this fall, in which he had to write an essay. Like many students at the college, Vernon wondered, “What does writing an essay have to do with welding?” However, Vernon realized he had to take general education courses in order to achieve his degree in welding and went ahead and accepted his responsibility as a student. But he also realizes the importance of a well-rounded education. “Life is about sacrifices and overcoming obstacles.”

Vernon believes coming into a whole new world, even though he was once confused on what to do with the rest of his life, was when he found Northland Pioneer College and decided on his own to pursue a better life. “I own this choice and want to prove to everyone that if I can overcome these obstacles, anyone can do it too,” Vernon added.

– Everett Robinson