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Michele Knife Sterner is Cowan Award Recipient

Published Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Michele Knife Sterner
Michele Knife Sterner

Michele Knife Sterner, whose family lineage can be traced to the early years of Southwest Minnesota State University, is the 2019 recipient of the Cowan Award.

The award goes to a faculty or staff member who has made great contributions to SMSU and the region. It is named in honor of Catherine Cowan, the popular SMSU psychology professor who died in an auto accident on Dec. 22, 2001.

Michele is the Associate Director of Access, Opportunity Success and a visible figure on campus and within the region.

She literally grew up on the SMSU campus. Her father, Mike, was recruited to come to SMSU by former baseball coach Jim Denevan. Mike arrived in 1969 along with his wife, Karen. Mike would build the wresting program into a conference and regional power, while Karen was a professor in the Education Department until her retirement. Her brother, John, was SMSU’s first wrestling national champion, and would later follow his father as head coach. The two siblings made the campus their playground.

She has fond memories of growing up on a campus where everyone looked out for her and her brother. “My brother and I swam in the pool, played out at the track, used the weight room. We wore a path between Education and PE from going back and forth to see mom and dad. SMSU has always been so much a part of my whole life experience.”

 As she grew up, she had other distinct memories. “I remember when we hosted the national swim meet, all the lights were out and the pool lights were lit and the energy of the crowd was amazing.”

Her position with AOS “is multi-faceted,” she explains. “It also deals with student retention, making sure the students are successful and providing opportunities for them, such as leadership development. We want our students to come away from SMSU with experiences that help them get a job.”

AOS serves 200 students who are either first-generation college attendees, Pell Grant recipients or students of color. “It is not remedial based; it is open to all, and we have a diverse group of students who excel in their chosen areas,” she said. “We’ve had four participants who have become Honors Club presidents.”

She  is also the coordinator of the Summer Bridge program, a college preparatory program that annually enrolls 40 qualifying students.

She earned a degree in Cultural Anthropology and a minor in American Indian Studies from Minnesota State Moorhead. She is pursuing her master’s degree in youth community family education from the University of Minnesota.

She is in her 11th year at SMSU. Prior to that, she worked with the Minnesota Literacy Council and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. She is a member of the Rosebud Sioux community in South Dakota.

She’s on many committees on campus and is the faculty advisor to the Oyate Club and the UGLYS. She works with the community to produce the annual Culture Shock event, and partners with Literacy Volunteers to provide tutoring sessions for AOS Scholars.

Off campus, she’s on the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council board, co-chair of Culture on the Prairie of Southwest Minnesota, member of Financial Empowerment Board of Southwest Minnesota, charter member of the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights Board of Education, and a Marshall Area Stage Company (MASC) actress, which is where she originally met Cathy Cowan.

She has also organized, hosted and participated in the Dakota 38+2 Horse Ride, and given numerous American Indian presentations at school, colleges and community organizations.

Her Lakota heritage dovetails nicely with the family-like atmosphere at SMSU. “In the Indian world, cousins are more like siblings,” she said. “And in the rules of kinship, you have the ability to make a relative of someone close to you,” she explained.

Making a relative is done at a ceremony, she said. “We had a ceremony here, at a Wacipi, and my mom made relatives with (former SMSU President) Oliver Ford, (former International Student Services Director) Don Robertson and Dave Larson, the head dancer when the Wacipis were held here,” she explained. “The emphasis is on the relationship.”

Michele and her husband, Oak Kelsey (1995 alumnus), are the parents of two children: Kaziah, 13, and Felix, 9.

As for the award, she’s humbled to be considered. “I feel honored to receive the award, knowing the intention of it. I really try to be community engaged, and want the students to feel the campus is a place they belong. I try to bring different programming to the campus and the greater community to help make SMSU even more exceptional than it is.

“My parents raised me to think about community building, and everything I’ve done has been a connection to being of service to people, especially American Indian children. I was given opportunities other American Indian children weren’t, and I want to provide opportunities to them. I was given a gift, I chose great parents — in the Lakota world, you choose your parents — and I had access other people did not have. I am honored.”