As director of Minnesota’s Office of Indian Education, alumna Jane Harstad crisscrosses the state looking for solutions.
Growing up in a family of seven adopted children of different races and ethnicities, Jane Harstad was not only fluent in the lexicon of diversity but also the cultural traditions of her Polish American mother and her Norwegian American father. In other words, this kid from Northeast Minneapolis knew her way around lefse and meatballs.
Today, sitting in her office at the Minnesota Department of Education, Harstad (M.S. ’95) is wearing a patterned beaded necklace and earrings—reference to the fact that she’s a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. As director of the state’s Office of Indian Education, Harstad serves as liaison between the state government, Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations, and the American Indian communities in the Twin Cities. Her goal is to improve outcomes for American Indian students.
Like most kids, Harstad began developing an interest in her heritage when she was a teenager. And she says that her time as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota was a continuation of that exploration—she spent 14 years finishing her undergraduate degree in elementary education, in part, she says, because her studies overlapped with having four children and it took her five tries to pass college algebra.
“I had a good idea of who I was, but I wasn’t politically active before I got to the U,” says Harstad, who credits the American Indian Student Association and the relationships she developed through that organization with igniting her interest in advocacy. “My time there cemented for me that there was work to be done with the American Indian community and there were ways to do it and avenues to get you where you needed to go. I realized that if I saw a problem, I could do something about it.” (Her sister, Maryanna Harstad, B.S. ’86, founded the U’s American Indian Alumni network in March 2017.)
After graduating from the U, Jane Harstad worked as a teacher in the American Indian Magnet School and Longfellow Humanities Magnet School, both in St. Paul. She loved teaching, but wanted to be able to do more for her American Indian students, who, she says, “are at the top of all the bad statistics and the bottom of all the good statistics.” So in 2004, she packed up her kids and moved to State College, Pennsylvania to study educational leadership and administration at Penn State.
She finished her master’s in under a year. “It was the right time for me to want to learn,” she says, referring to the long path to her B.A. She went on to earn her Ph.D., also from Penn State. At the Department of Education, Harstad travels throughout Minnesota to support school districts and parent committees as they strive to meet the needs of their American Indian students. By hitting the road, she not only gets a firsthand view of what works but can easily share that knowledge. She also puts forward legislation to benefit American Indian students. It’s a demanding job, but one that’s never far from what drew Harstad to education in the first place. “I love seeing the kids the most,” she says of her visits to schools.
And of her role in their education? “I facilitate conversations and get people to the right answer,” she says. “I’m not the answer. I just help get to the answer.”