Udall scholar looks to economics to help her tribal community

Jonnie Bray has seen the consequences of systemic poverty in her job as a public defender in the Native American legal system. Her desire to help people meant working with clients who attempted suicide, overdosed on drugs, or couldn’t find jobs.

Profile photo of Jonnie Bray
Jonnie Bray

“I went looking for another way to help,” said Bray, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. “I felt like I was spinning my tires and not getting any traction. I wanted to do something that gets to the root of the poverty I see. I was dealing with people after they were in the legal system. I want to help them before they get there.”

Bray enrolled at WSU last year to major in international economics and development in the School of Economic Sciences.

“I live in an economically depressed area, and we don’t have many good job opportunities,” said Bray, who plans to graduate in fall 2022. “The more I’ve studied economics, the more I see that people where I live don’t value education enough. Expanding opportunities will lead to better jobs, which will help fight the problems we have with depression and drug addiction.”

Bray isn’t a traditional college junior, as she’s already had a long career in tribal law in addition to raising three daughters. To help fund her mid-career education, she applied for several scholarships this past winter.

Bray received a prestigious Udall Undergraduate Scholarship award, which provides $7,000 for her WSU education. She will also attend a virtual week-long Udall Scholar orientation to network with fellow recipients, learn about the Udall legacy of public service, and interact with community leaders.

The awards, honoring politicians Morris and Stewart Udall, support study in three categories– tribal public policy, health care for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, plus fields related to the environment.

Bray’s scholarship is in the tribal public policy area.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited for the Udall Scholarship than Jonnie,” said Mark Gibson, a clinical associate professor in Economic Sciences who taught Bray this past school year. “She wants to use her economics training to do a lot of good in the world. I know she’ll make the most of this award, working tirelessly toward pulling Native Americans out of poverty.”

“I honestly didn’t realize what an honor this award is,” Bray said. “After I got the good news, I talked with a few people in the tribe who are familiar with the Udalls, and they congratulated me because this is a big deal.”

In addition to the Udall award, Bray earned other scholarships that will help her as she works toward her degree. She received the Henry T. Buechel Memorial Scholarship, a School of Economic Sciences scholarship, the Frank and Henry Meyer Scholarship, a College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resources Sciences scholarship, and the American Indian Endowed Scholarship.

She also received the Cobell Scholarship last year, which may be renewed.

“I almost cried when I heard about the Buechel and Meyer scholarships because they aren’t tied to being Native American,” Bray said. “It’s really nice knowing that people believe in you.”

After a year of online classes, Bray will be moving to Pullman from her home in Nespelem, Wash. She’ll be leaving her ranch, along with her chickens, horses, and cows, in the care of her boyfriend.

“I’m putting a lot of things on hold to pursue this degree,” Bray said. “But if I can make a difference and improve the lives of people on the Colville Reservation, and other reservations, it will all be worth it.”