For Casaja Fritzler, a 26-year-old member of the Crow tribe, graduating on Saturday from Montana State University with a bachelor's degree in nursing will be the realization of a dream she thought impossible.
"I've always wanted to be a nurse," Fritzler said Tuesday. As she talked, her whole face would light up with a smile. "I absolutely love to help people n that's what attracted me."
It has been a struggle, she confessed. For one thing, MSU's four-year-degree nursing program is known as rigorous. For another, Fritzler has been trying to get through college, while being a wife and a mom to her two little girls.
Perhaps most difficult for her has been not giving up, despite a fear deep inside that, as an American Indian, maybe she wasn't good enough.
"I've always had that desire, but never the belief I could do it," she said. "I always had that doubt in myself. I have doubted myself every second of nursing school."
Fritzler grew up on the Crow Reservation and graduated from Lodge Grass High in 2000. Her first daughter was born the next year. She attended Little Bighorn College on and off, enrolled as a pre-nursing student, though she never thought she'd actually seek a four-year degree.
"My whole mindset was thinking I wasn't going to make it, so I didn't even try," she said.
Then one day one of her sisters dragged her to a meeting of the new Caring for Our Own Program. Known as CO-OP, it was created to recruit, train and support Native American nurses and fill a critical need in Indian communities, where people have a lower life expectancy and serious health problems.
Fritzler said the idea of moving to Bozeman was scary.
"I lived on the Crow reservation all my life," she said. "Having kids made it all the more impossible, made me push the dream aside."
And her husband, Elvin, 28, who grew up ranching, fishing and hunting, hates cities. But they talked it over and decided to give it a try. They saved up money and moved to Bozeman with then 4-year-old Ivery and a 1-year-old Taneal.
It was partly for her children that Fritzler wanted to be successful and provide them a good home with financial stability. If she stayed on the reservation, her only opportunity would be working as a certified nurse's aide.
At MSU, Fritzler said she got crucial support from Kay Chafey, program director, and Frederica Lefthand, then CO-OP outreach coordinator, now academic dean at Little Bighorn College.
"They've been encouraging me every step of the way," Fritzler said. "There were quite a few times I felt like just giving up. Kay has been awesome."
On her most difficult days, Fritzler would stay up late preparing to work in the hospital, arrive at 6:45 a.m. and then put in an 11-hour day, working with patients and attending clinical conferences. Then she'd go home and write up a 25- to 40-page patient care plan. Her husband, she said, was an "awesome" help.
Prayer also gave her critical support. She led a weekly Native Bible study group on campus.
"I've only gotten through it with God n God and the Caring for Our Own Program," she said.
One aspect of MSU's nursing training that she loves is that it's not just about physical care of patients, but also emotional, social and spiritual care.
"I love providing emotional support and spiritual support n it's made me love nursing even more," she said.
Fritzler will be the first member of her immediate family to earn a college degree, and her mother is especially proud.
"My mom shouts it from the roof tops," Fritzler said and laughed.
Her sister-in-law is beading her cap and gown with Indian designs, her whole family is coming to graduation, and next week they'll have a celebration in a Billings city park, to hold the 100 people invited.
Fritzler found out two weeks ago she's been accepted into MSU's master's degree nursing program. She plans to go back to the reservation, work full time in the Crow-Northern Cheyenne hospital, and work part time toward her graduate degree through MSU's distance learning program.
"I want to go back to my reservation … and help other young people see that they can succeed," she said. "I want to see other people go after the impossible, to realize though we come from hard places, you can succeed."
Leaving Bozeman feels bittersweet, she said. "This has been the most enriching and challenging and trying time."