Jessica Lambert was raised in Cherokee, N.C., on the Qualla Boundary, 57,000 acres of land purchased by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the 19th century.
She attended Cherokee tribal schools. She knows this place and loves this place, but also knows that sometimes opportunities are hard to come by here.
Even though the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI) is the largest American Indian tribe in the United States, most of the 300,000-plus members are in Oklahoma, a result of the Trail of Tears forced relocation.
The 14,000 members in western North Carolina are the descendants of those who escaped that fate and were able to stay behind.
“My grandfather has a farm. He has horses and goats, and I spent a lot of time palling around with him. That’s where I really became interested in animals,” she says.
Like many students at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, Lambert decided that she wanted to be a veterinarian as a child. The dream seemed out of reach.
“It’s hard coming from western North Carolina,” she says. “There are fewer role models.”
Only an estimated 5% of the members of the EBCI have attained undergraduate degrees, and just 1.5% have post-graduate degrees. The school dropout rate is twice the national average. Overcoming the obstacles is a daunting challenge.
But Lambert has done it. The member of the class of 2023 is on track to achieve her goal with a combination of ability, hard work, family support and financial assistance from scholarships like the Richard (Yogi) Crowe Scholarship Fund. It hasn’t always been easy, though.
Focused on a career in veterinary medicine, she attended Western Carolina University at 17 and majored in biology and pre-health. She graduated at 20 and toured veterinary schools and eventually applied to her first choice, NC State.
“It was in February 2019 when I found out that I got into NC State — on my first try,” she says proudly.
Lambert was familiar with the Crowe Scholarship because her mother, Kimlyn Sneed Lambert, received it in 2006 when she was in graduate school. The Lamberts believe in the value of higher education, and even though NC State is a national leader providing a low-cost veterinary education, the expense can still be daunting.
Richard Crowe, known by his nickname, Yogi, was a member of the EBCI and he, too, struggled to pursue higher education. After a tour during the Vietnam War in the United States Army, he earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and went on to become the director of the American Indian recruiting program for the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, now known as the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
An emerging leader in the community, his life was cut short in an automobile accident in 1983 at 36 years old. The scholarship in his name was established in 1985.
Now, over 35 years later, the scholarship fund continues to provide encouragement and financial support to ECBI students — students like Lambert.
She is also a recipient of scholarships from the Chief John Alfred Tahquette Educational Trust and the EBCI Higher Education Training Program, and is a fellow of the Jones-Bowman Leadership Award Program.
With the demanding curriculum of the CVM, less time working to supplement a student’s income means more time studying and gaining hands-on experience. In Lambert’s case, that experience is leading her increasingly in the direction of pathology.
Currently, there isn’t a veterinarian on EBCI land, Lambert says, and she had originally thought about starting a practice there. But she may have found her calling in laboratory diagnostics.
“I’ll still want to help out my tribe, maybe volunteering to provide spay and neuter services,” she says. “I want to help in any way I can.”
Before deciding on a career focus, Lambert hopes to complete a residency to gain additional experience. It’s yet another possibility she couldn’t have foreseen when she was growing up.
“In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined all these opportunities,” she says. “I want to keep pushing myself.”
And she also offers advice for aspiring students with similar backgrounds.
“You can achieve anything you want with hard work and perseverance,” she says. “Don’t get discouraged by setbacks. Don’t give up. You can do it.”
~Steve Volstad/NC State Veterinary Medicine