An unexpected phone call brought Native American teenager Mel Sandholm ’75 to the UO—and a career spent encouraging critical perspectives in the classroom.
If retired educator Mel Sandholm ’75 were to pinpoint the moment that changed the trajectory of his life, it would be the phone call he got from a University of Oregon recruiter during the summer of 1970. Sandholm, then 18, had graduated from high school and was living in Brookings, Oregon, with his girlfriend. He was washing dishes in a local restaurant and had no career prospects; certainly no college plans.
And then came the call. Dennis DeGross ’71, counselor and program coordinator for the UO Native American Program, told Sandholm about a federal initiative aimed at helping members of underrepresented groups attend college. DeGross had found Sandholm’s name through a registry of tribal members kept by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He invited Sandholm to visit the campus and assured the young man he would receive the financial support and academic assistance he needed to remain in the program.
“It was totally out of the blue,” says Sandholm. “I was absolutely surprised and shocked and exhilarated. I got to go to college—it was not something I thought was going to happen.”
Sandholm, whose ancestry is Yurok and Irish, had never been looked at as college material. His home life had been textbook dysfunctional—he didn’t know his biological father, and his stepfather, a logger who never learned to read or write, was a nice guy who worked, and drank, hard. His mom was smart, but also abused alcohol. As a kid, Sandholm lived in nine foster homes. He was a reader, but his grades were mediocre.
“People were always coming and going,” he says. “I went to so many schools, I couldn’t tell you what school I was at in what year. Academic excellence is the last thing on the mind of a kid who is trying to survive. And I was trying to survive.”
But after that fateful call, education, not survival, is what played the major role in Sandholm’s life. For the next five years, he learned about himself and the world around him, including the often-skewed perceptions of history when it came to Native Americans and other minority groups. His freshman-year roommate, journalism major Pete McConnell ’74, was well prepared for college. An African American, McConnell not only served as a model for what Sandholm needed to do to succeed academically, but also taught him another perspective on American life.
“I learned so much about what it was like to be a black man on a white campus. So much about black culture, how African American history wasn’t taught properly,” Sandholm says. He credits the friendships he made that first year with keeping him on track. “I was surrounded by people who were more accomplished than I was,” he says. “I knew I needed to catch up, and it was a daunting task. Without my friends, I’m not sure I would have stayed in school.”
But he kept on track and graduated. Listening to a good friend tell stories about his work as a high school teacher and coach gave Sandholm an idea. “I always thought teaching US history would be great—an Indian who would be teaching US history properly. I’ve always been aware of how the native side of things was presented, and it irritated the hell out of me.”
Sandholm returned to the UO in 1978 to earn his teaching credential, launching a 30-year career using his life experience and education to reach and teach middle and high school students, many from underrepresented communities. The Santa Rosa, California, schools where he taught were plagued by gang activity and low academic scores. At the beginning of each school year, Sandholm told students his story—about his troubled family life as a kid, his so-so school performance, and the opportunity that changed his life.
“I let them know that it is possible to achieve even if you don’t have the support you deserve—that you do what you have to do to be who you are and to be a success.”
Sandholm knew from his own experience that support was crucial to a student’s confidence and achievement. He didn’t tolerate excuses, but he let his students know he was always there for them.
"If you become an educated person, people have to look you in the eye. They can’t discount you.”
“I always felt if I could do it, they could,” he says. “If you’ve been down, you’ll know up when you see it. If you become an educated person, people have to look you in the eye. They can’t discount you.”
Sandholm also knew the importance of making education relevant. He used music, role-playing, film, and quotes from famous people to make history come alive for his students. In his lessons on the US Constitution, he had his students dress up in the garb of the day and debate the slavery issue between Southerners and Northerners. When he taught about the Mexican War, he presented the Mexican perspective, “of a stronger country taking advantage of a weaker country.” He encouraged his students to question what they read, not just accept it, especially when it came to history that involved underrepresented groups.
The students paid attention. “There’s nothing better than seeing a student feel better about who they are once they have learned the truth about a historical event,” he says. “When you empower kids to understand history, you teach them how to think critically. You see a light bulb go on, and they begin to enjoy learning.”
Sandholm also spoke with his students about the common fear that education might dilute a person’s cultural heritage. While in the UO program, he was directed to professors such as former folklore professor Barre Toelken, who encouraged Native students to maintain their cultural roots but also wanted them to take advantage of an education. When he became a teacher, he drove home the point that education enhances, not erases, a person’s identity. “You walk a line where you take advantage of both opportunities,” he says. “You maintain your cultural roots, but becoming an educated individual is in your best interests.”
Deborah Chiene, principal of Lincoln Technical Academy and Lodi Adult School in California, is a longtime friend of Sandholm. He was tough in the classroom, she says, “but his students adored him. He was passionate about education and empowering young people, and helping them move forward in their lives.”
Sandholm’s background enabled him to relate to the challenges many of his students faced, she says. And his interactive teaching style made his lessons come alive. “He was thoroughly invested in his students, inside and outside the classroom. He was an outstanding educator, for so many reasons.”
Sandholm is now retired, spending his time gardening, cooking, walking his dogs, and traveling to Ducks games. But his passion for education hasn’t diminished. He has committed to a $500,000 gift in his estate, which will provide scholarships and support training programs for Native Americans at the UO.
“I am trying to repay the university, which is dear to my heart,” he says. “I have no doubt in my mind that it is responsible for my success in life.”