Meet VISIONS Scholarship Recipient Melissa Flamand!
Melissa earned a full scholarship from the VISIONS Foundation to attend our Mississippi program, and later went on to lead VISIONS programs herself! Learn more about Melissa’s journey in this Q&A.
Like many program leaders, Melissa Flamand is a longtime member of the VISIONS family. Born and raised on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, she earned a VISIONS scholarship to attend our Mississippi program during high school. There, she worked on social and environmental justice projects for an important watershed of the Gulf Coast, also serving alongside the Audubon Society to conserve and restore natural ecosystems in the region.
Later, after attending college at Dartmouth (where she graduated with degrees in Linguistics and Social Inequalities), Melissa returned on a second scholarship to attend our Montana Fall Gap Program in 2020. She went on to lead the following Gap Program herself, and eventually served as a leader during our Montana Blackfeet Teen Summer Program, helping VISIONS participants put down roots on her home reservation!
We spoke with Melissa in February 2022 to learn a bit more about her journey with VISIONS and what’s next for her.
Q: What made you interested in programs like VISIONS when you were in high school?
A: During high school, I often spent my time searching and dreaming about studying abroad. I have always loved traveling and getting to experience new places. I think there’s just so much you can learn from being in a new place, surrounded by new people and things. Something about getting outside your comfort zone and really taking a leap into the unknown is invigorating.
I knew that going abroad wasn’t going to be an option for me, during high school at least, and so I began looking for domestic programs to get involved with. A college-prep program that I am involved with pointed me to VISIONS, and once I found out a bit about the organization I set my hopes on applying to one of their programs.
Q: How was it going to Mississippi with VISIONS? What stood out about the experience?
A: I had finished my junior year of high school and I was excited to spend part of my summer doing something else for a change. At the same time, I was also super nervous. Being a shy person, I was anxious that I wouldn’t be able to connect with others as well.
But I can sure tell you that at the end of the program, when we were all at the airport heading back to our respective homes, I couldn’t help but shed some tears. The program was only two and a half weeks long, and by no stretch of my imagination did I think I could foster connections that strong with a bunch of strangers in that short amount of time. Not only did I connect with my fellow participants, but also with the people from the communities that we were welcomed into.
I think that’s what stands out the most to me about this program and the VISIONS programs overall – that no matter our differences, we can all find some common ground if we just take the time to really connect with one another.
Connections are what bind us, and when those bonds are formed, it’s tough to break them. They make us stronger. We make us stronger. We’re better together.
Q: How was it for you going from a small town on the Blackfeet Reservation to attending college on the East Coast, at Dartmouth?
A: To be quite honest, I was not at all prepared for a school like Dartmouth. I struggled academically and the culture itself was something I had not had much experience with. Not many people at Dartmouth came from a similar background as me, being low income and coming from the Reservation, so it was challenging for me to connect with those who belonged to the upper-middle class or top 1%. Our experiences didn’t and wouldn’t match up to one another.
But none of those things meant that I wasn’t up to the challenge. Of course, I didn’t know what I was doing, but we’re here sharing the same space at this school, so I’m going to give it my all. I thought of it as being just like any other challenge that I’ve faced in my life: you just have to make the most of the situation. And if you don’t, then that’s on you. Needless to say that I made it out of there in four years, and now, looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Halfway through my freshman year, I was on a phone call with a mentor from that college prep program I mentioned earlier. I was struggling with school at the time and she was talking through things with me. At one point she seriously asked me if I wanted to stop and transfer to a different school, if that would make things more comfortable for me, as I was clearly a mess. I paused for a second, and finally answered, “No.” And I was serious. I was sure in that moment that I wanted to stay and finish what I started. I was out of my comfort zone and I was learning all the time, in more ways than just academically.
And I’m sure glad I stayed because I’ve made so many friends along the way, from so many different places, and having different life experiences. I am richer now because they are in my life. A different kind of rich than you usually see at these kinds of schools.
Q: You also participated in VISIONS Gap program at our Montana Farm in Fall 2020. Why did you choose that program? Are there some things that stood out most?
Honestly, I had just graduated from college and I was looking for something to do with my life. This seemed like the right direction to take things as I was interested in what the program had to offer: sustainability, conservation and connecting with nature. Those were all things I cared about.
What stood out the most to me about this program was again realizing just how valuable these new, different and challenging experiences are. There is so much to learn from our encounters, we just have to be willing to accept that knowledge. It is everywhere, from the people we meet to the ground we tread on. We’d be foolish to ignore it. That’s my takeaway.
Q: In a sense, you’ve come “full circle” with VISIONS. You went from participating in high school and Gap programs to being a leader on our Montana Blackfeet program. How was it to welcome kids from other parts of the country to your home area?
Having been a participant in two other VISIONS programs where I was welcomed into new communities, it was sort of weird to think of the flip side of the coin here. Now I’m a trip leader and these students are coming to my home turf, where I grew up and had most of my life experiences.
It was satisfying in the way that I wasn’t going to necessarily be the one to try to convey these experiences anymore, because these students were now going to have their own experiences here. I’ve spent a fair amount of my life coming to terms with the differences in how I grew up compared to the rest of the world, as I’m sure we all have.
But this was different, because to me it seems like most people are unaware of what life is like on the Reservation. This was an opportunity for these students to witness that. The struggles we go through, the culture we represent and the chance to make connections that hopefully they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Q: How do you like to spend your time now? Are there a couple of things that are particularly important to you as you decide what you would like to do next in your life?
A: Currently I am recovering from ACL surgery, which has recently pretty much been determining what I do with my life. At some point though, I would like to go back to school, particularly to pursue museum studies. I think museums are amazing spaces which allow people, ideas and feelings to come together and interact with one another across place, time and culture. It speaks to my passion for creating connections with one another.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to recommend the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer to everyone I know. She shares so much wisdom that can benefit us all.