“I didn’t know I was different. I grew up in an atmosphere where everyone was Indian, everyone was native, so I didn’t know it was this anomaly to be where I was from,” Erica Dienes (W ’19) explained.
Before coming to Penn, Erica had a vastly different lifestyle from many of her peers on campus. As a member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, the current Natives at Penn president grew up on a reservation in Atmore, Alabama for much of her childhood before moving to Tampa, Florida at the age of thirteen.
“There’s way more of a community aspect than I think you get just living in your neighborhood in a cul de sac growing up because technically everyone there is family. Technically everyone there, if you trace it back, has some sort of connection to you,” Erica said.
Growing up, everyone in her town was her “kin,” Erica explained, which was one of the most valuable parts of living on the reservation. Erica’s parents met in college at the University of Western Florida. Her mother is native and her father is not. When they decided to start a family, they moved back to her mother's reservation because Erica’s mother wanted to raise her kids in an atmosphere that was more “culturally–based.”
Erica explained that, because everyone on the reservation is extremely close, most people never leave.
“My dad was always like, there’s a life bigger than this, and on the res you don’t really know that. You’re not exposed to that,” Erica said. “I always knew I wanted to get away, but that was also really hard for me because I’m viewed as the one who left, which is a really hard balance to strike.”
Erica said that if she had never left Alabama, she probably would not be at Penn. She said she wouldn’t have known this type of opportunity even existed. The summer before her senior year, Erica attended the Leadership, Education, and Development program, a Wharton three–week intensive program for students of minority backgrounds to learn about all areas of business. It was during this program that Erica “fell in love with Penn” and decided to apply early decision the following November.
Despite her initial love for the school and for Penn’s campus, adjusting to such a new and highly competitive environment was a struggle for Erica during her first semester.
“When you come from high school, everyone is comparing SAT scores and things like that,” Erica said. “I was always the bottom, I was always the bottom, I was always the bottom. I was like, damn, am I only here because they’re trying to fill a quota?”
Erica said that it got to a point where she was about to pack up her things and leave, until she decided to make a change.
“I literally sat and looked at myself in the mirror one day and said honestly, ‘You kind of have to stop feeling sorry for yourself...someone here thought that you’d succeed here and make an impact and be successful, and it’s up to you to see that in yourself,’” Erica said. “When I realized I deserved to be here just as much as everyone else, I was fine.”
Since this turning point during her freshman year, Erica has done exactly what she told herself she would. In addition to being president of Natives at Penn, Erica is a former member of MUSE, a marketing club at Penn, a tour guide for Kite and Key, and a member of the Sigma Kappa sorority.
Nevertheless, Erica is working to improve the transition for other minority students at Penn.
“Any minority student that struggles feels this; this balance between how do I stay true to where I’m from and who I am in my roots and my ancestors, but also how do I make a difference and an impact, and be successful here without forgetting where I came from,” Erica said.
Finding this balance became the inspiration for last year’s Ivy Native Council conference that Penn hosted entitled, “Navigating Two Worlds.” The conference hosted around 160 native students to discuss issues relating to native students’ experiences adjusting to college.
Erica's goals as President of Natives at Penn is to stay true to her roots and establish a community through Natives at Penn in which future native students of all upbringings and backgrounds feel welcomed and supported.
One thing that Erica aims to put a stop to is the question she hears far too often: “What percent [native] are you?” She believes this question is inherently flawed and the answer is “irrelevant”.
“How you identify is how you identify,” Erica says. Regardless of whether or not a person identifies as native or technically has any native blood, Erica wants to make it clear that Natives at Penn encourages everyone to come, learn, and support each other.
“I think there are a lot of people who are native at Penn but don’t identify as such,” Erica said. “You may be a little bit native, but let’s help you learn about where you’re from.”
Erica hopes to teach people that there are so many differences between all native tribes, bands, and communities instead of all being clumped together under just the term “native.”
“Me and a Navajo, the only thing we have in common is that we’re native. In terms of beliefs, in terms of rituals, nothing is the same,” Erica said. “People don’t realize that. It’s very much a generalization of Indian people as a whole.”
Even though she lives in Tampa, she tries to stay connected to her family back on the reservation in Alabama as much as possible. One thing she still wants to do is get the tattoo that her cousins have. While their tribe no longer believes in clans, Erica says that if she traces the lineage back far enough to when clans existed, her family belonged to the “hotvlē” clan, meaning “wind” in English. This is the inscription her cousins have tattooed on themselves. She jokes that whenever she goes in to get it done she “chickens out.” But tattoo or not, Erica makes it clear that her family heritage will always be with her regardless of her new life at Penn, and she hopes that more Penn students can find that same balance in navigating their own worlds.