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Listen to Monalie Bohannon discuss her journey to college with reporter Charlotte West
https://hechingerreport.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/West-Monalie-FINAL_mixdown_L.mp3
Desert Cahuilla Bird song track #3 by DC BirdSingers. Music courtesy of Mike Mirelez.

-Produced by Monica Braine

Senior year didn’t turn out exactly how 18-year-old Monalie Bohannon had imagined it. Instead of playing basketball for Hamilton High School in Anza, California, or making new memories with her friends, she spent the year attending classes online, working at her tribe’s gas station and babysitting her younger cousins.

“I keep myself busy,” she said. “Not having a senior year has been kind of discouraging, like not physically being at school, because that’s what you look forward to as a high school student. But I found out that I’m capable of doing a lot more things than just school.”

The entrance to the reservation of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians in Mountain Center, California. Approximately 150 people live on the reservation. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

Bohannon lives on the reservation of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians on the outskirts of Anza, a high desert town of 3,000 in Southern California. Bohannon’s community, Mountain Center, is even smaller with around 150 residents; she was the only student from her tribe to graduate from the high school this year; just 5 percent of the school’s 266 students are Native.

A Pendleton blanket Monalie Bohannon’s family made for her graduation from Hamilton High School in Anza, California. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

Even after her school reopened for in-person classes in April, Bohannon decided to finish the year online. That way it was easier to continue her 38-hour-a-week job at the Santa Rosa Pit Stop, where her mom and older sister also work.

Monalie Bohannon pets her aunt’s horse, Jack, on the day of her graduation from Hamilton High School. She is wearing a traditional Cahuilla bird dancing shawl that belonged to her great-grandmother. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

“They’re tired when they come home,” she said. “Now when I come home, I’m tired with them.” 

Monalie Bohannon works at the Santa Rosa Pit Stop, the gas station owned by her tribe, with her mom and sister. She decided to finish her senior year of high school online so she could work. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

Bohannon also spent much of the year watching her younger cousins during school hours. She would attend her classes while perched at a counter in her kitchen so she could keep an eye on them.

Dakota Lassen works with Monalie Bohannon at the Santa Rosa Pit Stop, the gas station owned by their tribe. Lassen, who graduated from Hamilton High School in 2020, took a year off after high school. He and Bohannon are planning to move to Palm Desert, California, next fall. Lassen, who Bohannon describes as “like a brother,” wants to study to become a barber and Bohannon will study nursing at College of the Desert. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

“We would all be in school together,” she said. “When we had … breaks during our class periods, I would sit there with them and listen to their teachers with them, to see if they understand what they’re talking about.”

An aerial shot of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians reservation in Mountain Center, California, in the San Jacinto Mountain range in southern California. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

If all goes as planned, Bohannon will be the first in her family to get a bachelor’s degree. Her mom earned an associate degree, and her older sister took a break after high school and then chose not to attend college. That led Bohannon to prioritize her college applications. “I know that if I take a break, I’m not gonna want to go back, cause I’m already finding a new way of life,” Bohannon said.

Monalie Bohannon’s mother tries on a shawl that is a family heirloom before her daughter’s graduation from Hamilton High School, on June 2, 2021. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

Her busy schedule did make it difficult to schedule appointments with her high school counselor, but Bohannon said she got the help she needed when it came to college.

A tender moment between 18-year-old Monalie Bohannon and her mother on the day of Bohannon’s graduation. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

She spent the spring weighing where she wanted to go to college. One morning in mid-April, she was getting ready in the bathroom when her phone pinged with an email from La Sierra University, a private liberal arts college in Riverside, California. She was elated by the news that she’d been accepted to study nursing.

Monalie Bohannon’s cousin helps her attach an eagle feather to her graduation cap. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

But just a few weeks later, Bohannon changed her mind. She decided instead to attend College of the Desert, a community college in Palm Desert, California, about 40 miles from her home. There, she can play basketball, and perhaps more importantly, it’s closer to her family. After getting her associate degree in nursing, she plans to transfer to a four-year school to continue her studies in the field.

Monalie Bohannon gets ready at home on the day of her graduation from Hamilton High School. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

“I’m excited to get away from the reservation, but also to be able to come home,” she said.

Monalie Bohannon leaves her home on the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians Reservation with her grandmother and mother on the day of her high school graduation. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

A highlight of Bohannon’s senior year was her grandmother presenting her with an eagle feather at a tribal ceremony in May. “We’re all women in my family,” she said. “So all of my big inspirations, my role models, they all got to see me receive my eagle feather.”

Monalie Bohannon gets emotional as she stands in line with her mom on the day of her graduation from Hamilton High School. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

When she wore the feather at her graduation on June 2, she says she felt the support of her family and community.

Read the series

This story is part of a series on college enrollment and retention among Native students that was supported by the Education Writers Association.

Monalie Bohannon’s grandmother presented her with an eagle feather at a ceremony in May so she could wear it at her graduation from Hamilton High School in Anza, California. “I’m a Native American, I’m from Santa Rosa,” she said. “And I [now] can say that I’m a graduate from Santa Rosa. It’s just something that you can always carry with you.” Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

“What we’re taught is when you earn your eagle feather, that means you’re an adult, that means you’ve accomplished something big,” she said. “I know a lot of people on our reservation didn’t graduate. And so when they see us graduating, they really try to let us know [that] they appreciate us and they’re proud of us.”

Monalie Bohannon wears a mask at her high school graduation. She studied online her senior year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

Bohannon is looking forward to starting classes at College of the Desert in August, but she’s also glad to be staying close to home. “When you grow up on a reservation, it’s not like you’re trapped or anything,” she said. “It’s just … home is always going to be home.”

Monalie Bohannon’s diploma from Hamilton High School, given to her on her graduation day, June 2, 2021. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

Her family has suggested she could leave the reservation for college and still return later. But Bohannon said she’d prefer not to go too far away: “I just feel like I have so much to do here still … I just know that whatever I decide to do, they’re going to support me,” she said of her family. “I know that whatever I do, I’m going to help our people.”

Monalie Bohannon walks during her graduation from Hamilton High School in Anza, California. “I know a lot of people on our reservation didn’t graduate. And so when they see us graduating, they really try to let us know [that] and they appreciate us and they’re proud of us.” Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

Monica Braine, who is Assiniboine and Hunkpapa Lakota, produced the audio story. The story was supported by a grant from the Education Writers Association.

This story about leaving home was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Charlotte West is a freelance journalist who covers education, criminal justice, housing, and politics. Her work has appeared in national publications such as The Hechinger Report, the Washington Post,...

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