VERMILLION, S.D. -- Amongst a crowd of teenagers and twentysomethings, Roger Irwin, Jr. has already lived a pretty full life. A nontraditional full-time student, he’s married with two children, spent a decade in the Marine Corps fulfilling two tours in Iraq in 1991 and 1992, traveled to 31 counties and he was a highly decorated officer in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Justice Services Department. So how did he, a University of South Dakota junior, become a 2011 recipient of the Morris K. Udall Scholarship?
“I always wanted to get my degree,” said Irwin, a 1989 graduate of Yankton High School. “This is my third time attending school and I have no intentions of quitting.”
Achieving the goal of getting his college degree isn’t for a lack of effort for Irwin, who was born and raised in Yankton, S.D. He’s just always been busy working. After graduating high school, he spent a decade in the Marines traveling the world and doing two tours of duty in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. He rose to the rank of sergeant with duties as Commanding General Inspector for the 1st Marine Division and was looking to make a career out of the military when he was injured, required surgery and was ultimately medically discharged in 2001.
“I would’ve continued in the Marines if not for injuries,” he explained. “It was really fun, what I was doing. I had been to 31 countries; did two tours in Iraq and one in Japan (1995). I was in Somalia in 1993 and spent time in Australia. I wished I could’ve done more.”
Irwin moved back to South Dakota and began working in law enforcement. He put his decade’s worth of military and firearms training to use as a police officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services at the Yankton Agency in Wagner, S.D. Even though law enforcement was something he was good at and he was able to make a career out of it, Irwin still felt the need to return to school. He returned to USD thanks to the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program and is taking 16 credit hours this semester. He is poised to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, attend law school and graduate with a juris doctor.
“I quit school twice to go to work,” said Irwin, the son of Lois and Roger Irwin, Sr., both of Yankton. “And I was working with the tribal court system, spending a lot of time in the courts as a BIA officer, so I realized that there was a problem.”
A member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, Irwin often worked 20 hour shifts and saw firsthand the problems occurring daily on South Dakota reservations. He watched as the department he joined in 2001 went from 15 officers to one – himself. Tired of being on the arresting end of justice, Irwin has made a commitment to pursue Indian Law once he graduates with his bachelor’s degree in May 2012 and enters law school.
“In terms of Roger’s pursuit of knowledge, he seems to have an unbridled drive to learn,” added Steve Feimer, Ph.D., director of Criminal Justice Studies at USD. “In the end, it will be the Native American communities in which Roger works that will reap the benefit of his scholarly pursuit and his fair handed approach to solving difficult problems. Roger is truly the kind of person who will make a difference in the lives of many people.”
A father of two, Irwin is determined to make a difference in the lives of his two sons, Dawson and Alex, as he spends much of his free time either coaching Little League baseball or as a Scout Leader for Yankton’s Boy Scout Troop 258. And while most Udall scholars are excited to talk about what makes them a special candidate to receive such a scholarship, Irwin flashes a quick smile and prefers to talk about his upcoming family camping trip with his children and wife, Christine (Nyvold) Irwin, a Sisseton, S.D. native and a 2006 graduate of USD.
“My leisure time is spent with the kids,” he explained. “Everything from Boy Scouts to swimming lessons and baseball, but we’re really excited about this camping trip. It’s the first one of the spring and they love to be outdoors. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without their support.”
As one of 80 Udall Scholarship winners nationwide, Irwin will receive a $5,000 scholarship toward his undergraduate degree at The University of South Dakota. He will also attend a week-long seminar in Tucson, Ariz. this August to receive the award in addition to meeting with policymakers and community leaders in environmental fields, tribal healthcare and governance and other scholarship recipients. He was nominated for the scholarship by Carol Voss-Ward, Arts and Sciences Advisor, Academic and Career Planning Center.
A photo of Roger is available at www.usd.edu/press/news/images/releases/Roger_Irwin.jpg.