When Susan Hamilton Mitchell ’15 (M.A. American studies) was writing her graduate thesis, she kept an old photo of children from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School on her desk to stay motivated.
The winner of the 2015 Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) Betty Robertson Award, who had long been passionate about Native American studies, chose to focus her thesis on a federal education policy for Native American children that began in the late 19th century.
The Carlisle School was the first non-reservation boarding school for Native Americans and became the model for many others. “Rather than leaving them on the reservation where they would still have their families and cultural affiliations, it became policy to remove children off the reservation, thousands of miles away from their home, and then educate them to become assimilated or so-called ‘civilized,'” says Mitchell. “So the thesis itself looks at the policy for what the goals were, but, of course, not even paying attention that these Native Americans were what they called civilized — they had their own education, their own culture, and it was just really an erasure of their Indian identity.”
The stories she uncovered during her research, which took her to the original Carlisle School in Pennsylvania and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., were compelling. “You can actually look up some of the student files, follow some of the students. … I found fabulous records that no one has really looked at. I took that information and analyzed it. And it’s not black and white.”
Some students became assimilated, while others did not; some had good experiences and others didn’t. “You think about taking these children away from their parents at such a young age,” says the mother of four and new grandmother. “It breaks my heart.” Now, she adds, she’s interested in looking at similar patterns worldwide.
Mitchell was teaching full time while pursuing her graduate studies — “eighth graders, 240 of them, every day” — while mentoring teacher candidates in her classroom. She’s been nationally recognized for her excellence in teaching by the U.S. State Department, the Fulbright-Hays fellowship program and the National Endowment for the Humanities as a Teacher-Scholar Fellow.
She credits “wonderful” chair committee Susan Woo, assistant professor of American studies, and the just-retired Mike Steiner, professor emeritus of American studies, for their support. “When I was investigating colleges to do my master’s, I was kind of worried about age,” says the 66-year-old. “I didn’t know if I had what it would take because I was always taking classes, but not in an established program. Mike Steiner was a graduate adviser at the time. I spoke to him, and right then I knew I had found my home.”
The Elizabeth “Betty” Robertson Award is named for one of OLLI’s founders. When Mitchell learned more about who Robertson was, she realized that “she was almost a mentor, even though she’s no longer here.” Robertson was the former director of community and in-house programs in University Extended Education. In 1979, she secured a grant to create a self-supporting educational program on campus that led to the organization now known as OLLI.
“She did a lot for older adults, and I thought, ‘I want to do that,'” says Mitchell. “I want to be an advocate for older adults to go back to get a master’s degree or a Ph.D.
“I love to learn, but I really want to be a champion or role model for older adults to go back and do this because it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life,” she adds. “I really want people to know that age doesn’t limit your life.”