Tosha Big Eagle radiates positivity. She’s easy to talk to and her tortoiseshell cat-eye glasses add to her spunky personality. It’s difficult to imagine the challenges she’s had to overcome to get to where she is today.
Big Eagle, 37, is Clark’s most recent winner of the Transforming Lives Award, which, since 2012, has recognized current or former students whose lives have been transformed by pursuing higher education at a community or technical college in the state of Washington.
Originally from Longview, Big Eagle was raised in a single-parent home.
“I grew up with a lot of childhood trauma,” said Big Eagle. “Sexual, mental, emotional and physical abuse.”
“I moved out when I was 13 to go live with my grandparents,” she said. “But we didn’t talk about it. Any trauma? In my culture, you don’t talk about it. You don’t acknowledge it.”
Big Eagle is Native American. Her father was enrolled in the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.
“I suffered from depression and anxiety, a lot of different mental health issues going on, also untreated and not talked about,” said Big Eagle.
Shortly after arriving at college, Big Eagle found herself using methamphetamines to help her cope with her past.
Within a year, she was serving a 20-month jail sentence -the maximum for her offense.
“I got out, I was in recovery, I was going back to school and my father overdosed and died from methadone next to me,” said Big Eagle. “I felt responsible. No way was I responsible, but I felt like I should have known.”
His death in 2008 caused her to relapse—this time, with heroin. And again, within a year, she was behind bars.
She was arrested in an undercover sting on suspicion of heroin delivery, conspiracy to deliver heroin and possession of heroin.
“I received a 10-year sentence,” she said. “I was never offered any form of treatment; I was never offered any kind of alternative.”
Big Eagle took it upon herself to take every counseling and self-help class available to her while she was in prison. She joined the Women’s Village, which is comprised of inmates who are practicing healthy behaviors and lifestyles and are trying to create positive change in their lives. She began mentoring other prisoners.
She was released after serving seven years. When she got out, Big Eagle was in her early 30’s, a felon and had spent nearly nine years of her life incarcerated.
Finding a job was difficult after her re-entry into society. “I eventually applied for fast food,” she said. “The person interviewing me told me he was willing to take a chance.”
“Growing up, fast-food jobs are not glamorized. And so, to hear that they were taking a chance on me like I wasn’t good enough was hard,” said Big Eagle.
“But my desire to better my life meant more to me than the limitations they were putting on me,” she said.
Big Eagle started at Jack in the Box in October 2016 and by August 2017, she was the general manager.
“I’m really grateful for it. I managed that store for a year, and I probably would have stayed in the industry, but I had my son. My beautiful son, who will be three in March,” she said.
Big Eagle found herself in the position of not making enough money to cover childcare but making too much money to receive assistance. Her son’s father has epilepsy and was having grand mal seizures at the time, so he was unable to watch the baby. She would sometimes bring her son to work with her at the restaurant.
Knowing that she had to come up with a long term solution, Big Eagle found her way to the Workforce Education Services Department at Clark.
“The Workforce Education Program helped me from A to Z in my college journey, I mean, even to employment. Now, I work for that department,” she said.
Big Eagle has been employed by WES since her second quarter at Clark. She has transitioned through several positions and is currently focusing on homelessness prevention.
“Oddly enough to me, there were not very many resources when I first started in this position,” she said. “We have a partnership with the housing consortium and the Council for the Homeless. That was kind of it.”
“So now what we’re trying to do is find more resources, so that when our students come in, I have something more to give them: a connection with some agency in the community,” she said.
Lora Jenkins is the Opportunity Grant/Passport to College Advisor at WES and one of two people to nominate Big Eagle for the Transforming Lives Award.
“She’s come a long way,” said Jenkins. “She’s made some fantastic adjustments and her outlook on life is so positive after coming from such a negative.”
One of three outstanding candidates, Big Eagle was ultimately chosen because of her “tenacity and long, expansive history of resiliency,” according to Rekah Strong, vice-chair of the Clark College board of trustees.
“You think about all of the barriers that get into people’s spaces,” said Strong. “Her story of collective childhood trauma, moving through addiction, being incarcerated and wanting to go back and relate and pull other people through along with her was profound for us.”
Along with the other winners from Washington state, Big Eagle will have the opportunity to share her story with state and federal legislators. Their stories will help to showcase how education helps people overcome barriers and change lives. The awardees will also receive $500 that can be used to further their education.
“It’s a tremendously tough decision because all three candidates were phenomenal,” said Strong. “Because of that, we make sure we work with the foundation to ensure that all three of them get a $500 scholarship that they can take with them, either to use at Clark or other places.”
Currently, Big Eagle is pursuing a degree in human development at WSU. She is minoring in psychology and addiction studies, “and I’m scouting their doctorate and prevention programs,” she said.
“I really, really think that higher education is the key to unlocking so many doors and prevention,” said Big Eagle. “Prevention of unhealthy behaviors, unhealthy thinking. Education has really been a big part of my success.”