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Vice president for advancement at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota

Working on a PhD at Indiana University
Interned with the House of Representatives in D.C.

Do something you love 

Do something you love to do. Don't worry about the money. If you love it, you'll make it work.

Matt Ehlman interned in Washington, D.C., and was headed toward a career in government—until a road trip caused his career plans to take a wild, rewarding turn.

In his own words

What led you to Red Cloud Indian School?

At Ambrose there was a cohort of people that got involved in the community—whether it was student government or the Campus Activities Board—so service was just part of the experience. Some friends of mine had put together a trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, so I was on the van hours after the school year ended my junior year.

Ten days later I was in D.C.—which was where I wanted to be after graduation—interning for the Small Business Committee for the House of Representatives. Those experiences, juxtaposed together, were influential in my decision to return here.

What got you hooked on the reservation—especially if Washington, D.C., was in your career plan at the time?

The experience of coming to the reservation opened my eyes. You‘ve got all these great programs like the Peace Corps where you go serve international needs, but there's a lot of need in the United States. What you learn in D.C. is that there are lots of ways to be active in the community. You can do something important in a major metropolitan city, or you can do it in a rural setting in South Dakota.

What do you do as vice president for advancement?

I oversee fundraising, so I lead a team of people who work with 75,000 donors across country. We need to raise $12 million per year to keep the doors open and lights on for three schools, 16 parishes and a Heritage Center museum on the Pine Ridge. But the job can be a little bit of everything. I might fly to California to meet with a charity foundation. If we're dedicating a new building, I'm putting napkins on the tables and working with students to create centerpieces.

What motivates people to give to the school?

The student success is truly unparalleled. One hundred percent of our grads have plans for college or further training when they walk across the high school graduation stage. We've got kids at Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Stanford and all the best state schools. They're getting PhDs and medical degrees. Many of them want to come back to the reservation to make a positive difference.

What did you learn as student body president that matters in your job today?

Patience. There are other people who can do the work better than you. If you can take your ego out of it and allow others to do their work better than you could have done it, the whole organization is stronger. Ultimately you've got to have a plan and rally people around it.

What makes you feel good about your job?

When you live and work on a campus that has K-12 students, you get to go have breakfast with young kids who are excited to be there. Then you have lunch with older kids talking about where they want to be in the future. And Red Cloud is playing an important part in helping them fulfill their ambitions. These kids are getting the full student experience.

You majored in business and thought you'd work in D.C. How has your career path surprised you?

You know, it's funny. My buddy Jeremy Koch, a graduate of Ambrose, was this guy from a small town who thought he'd end up on the farm but he's traveled the world, got a master's degree in D.C. and is now stationed in Ethiopia as a project director for American Institutes of Research. He always made fun of me as the city boy, since I was from St. Louis and he was the guy from the family farm. But after graduation, I went to rural America and he went to D.C. We get a good laugh about that.

What's your career advice for today's grads?

Do something you love to do. Don't worry about the money. If you love it, you'll make it work. If you're going to spend eight hours a day—or more—at work, you had better make sure it's something you enjoy.

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