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WSU grad hopes to use degrees to break down barriers for Native American communities

Published on January 5, 2023
After spending years as a public defender and witnessing the challenges of Native Americans in her hometown, Jonnie Bray decided to go back to school so she could make a different kind of impact on people in her community and beyond.

“I could see I wasn’t accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish just by doing my job,” she said. “In order to do more for the Native American community, it meant I also had to do more on a personal level.”

A woman in a cap, gown, and stole holds two diplomas.
Jonnie Bray graduated in December 2022 with bachelor’s degrees in economic sciences and social sciences.

Bray, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, graduated from Washington State University in December 2022, earning a bachelor’s degree in economic sciences with an emphasis in policy and law, and a bachelor’s degree in social sciences with an emphasis in English, history, and political science. She also received a minor in philosophy and has worked as an intern at WSU’s Division of Governmental Studies and Services since May.

Incentives are a key part of economics: People typically respond to them, leading to positive outcomes. Bray was motivated to act after watching so many in her community be penalized by a legal system that often relies on punishment and disincentives instead.

“The legal system is obviously not working,” said Bray. “We need to try something else. I wanted to see how we can use behavioral economics to help people, connect them with jobs and training, and create an institution that better fits the issues they are dealing with.”

Many in Bray’s community find it difficult to secure employment because they do not have physical addresses or high school diplomas. Often, those obstacles are compounded with traumatic life experiences. Nonetheless, these individuals are expected to adapt to societal norms amid few opportunities to overcome the barriers of systemic poverty.

“Sadly, it seems like dying is the only way that anybody ever gets out of the legal system,” she said. “Since I started at WSU in 2019, around 20 of my former clients have died, and not of old age. It’s heartbreaking, and I want to find a solution.”

Due to the pandemic, Bray completed her first year at WSU online. Reliable internet in her Nespelem, Wash., home proved to be a challenge, and she moved to Pullman to finish her degrees on campus, despite the increased cost of living away from home.

“I think you learn more when you’re in person,” she said.

Bray is both excited and relieved to be graduating. She also thinks it is important for her nieces and nephews to witness this significant milestone.

“I hope it makes an impression on them and that they will go to college, too,” she said.

Though she decided not to attend at the time, Bray was accepted to WSU right out of high school. Years later, she chose the university again because of the welcoming, helpful environment.

“WSU immediately told me about scholarships I could apply for and put me in touch with the Native American Program,” Bray said. “They were interested in my education and me coming to school here.”

A woman in a cap, gown, and stole holds a glass, a rose, and an envelope in front of WSU banners.
Jonnie Bray celebrates at her December 2022 graduation.

While at WSU, Bray received around $60,000 worth of scholarships, including the prestigious Udall Undergraduate Scholarship and the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) scholarship. She said the funding inspired her to work as hard as she could, and she is grateful to be graduating without debt.

“Scholarships encouraged me because they demonstrated that others believed I could do it,” she added.

Bray’s future plans include attending law school, likely in Washington state. She also hopes to create a community development corporation to help minorities establish businesses by providing them assistance with grant funding, business licenses, incorporation, taxes, and more.

“I want to help the Native American community break down barriers,” said Bray. “In my mind, that’s all connected to economic development.”

Media Contacts

Angela Sams, College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, 360-870-5947