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Press Release

Release Date: January 30, 2019

by Gene Lehmann

  • An error in a college admission application sent Chickasaw twins Morgan and Mallory Graves to Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. Morgan studies biology and Mallory studies communications.

  • Chickasaw cross-country runner Morgan Graves is cheered on by her coach Tim Testa during collegiate cross-country competition in fall 2018.

WINFIELD, Kan. – Chickasaw twins are living the college experience they dreamed of in this tiny Kansas community best known for crowning America’s national champion flat-pick guitar and mandolin players each September.

Yet, it was an error that sent Morgan and Mallory Graves to Winfield’s Southwestern College, founded in 1895 and claiming a 2018 student enrollment of 1,306.

A year ago, both were searching for colleges to attend after graduating from Plainview High School in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

Morgan was a state champion cross-country runner. She planned to stay close to home by enrolling at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma.

Mallory was undecided. She sent an admission application to Southwestern Christian University in Bethany, Oklahoma.

Or so she thought.

Mallory received an acceptance letter … from a school in Kansas.

“My dad looked at her and said, ‘You applied to the wrong school!’ My sister said ‘I guess I will apply to the correct school,’” Morgan recalled with delight.

But the Kansas college began sending emails to Mallory sharing scholarship opportunities for which she qualified. On a snowy February day in 2018, Mallory and her father, Chad, ventured to Southwestern for a tour and talk with Southwestern officials.

“They came back and said, ‘We love it. Mallory loves it.’ I was like, ‘Well, good for her.’ Then they said, ‘You have to apply, too.’”

“I am not applying,” Morgan protested. “I don’t want to go there. It’s in Kansas. It’s far away. It’s snowy.”

“They forced me to apply and I was accepted,” Morgan laughed.

Sports opens door

Morgan’s admission application mentioned she was a state champion runner. That tweaked the interest of Southwestern track and cross-country coach Tim Testa, who emailed a scholarship was waiting for Morgan when she joined the team.

“I thought, ‘Well, now I’m tied to Kansas, too,’” Morgan said. Both girls ventured to the college – Morgan for the first time – and enrolled in autumn 2018.

“I remember thinking, ‘I hope I like it here.’”

After just one semester, Morgan proclaimed, “I really do love it. I never guessed I would like it as much as I do. I like how the school is small. The teachers are all so nice; the classroom-per-student ratio is small. You can meet with teachers one-on-one and receive tutoring. They want to help you any way possible. Their whole goal is for you to graduate.”

Currently, Morgan is competing at indoor meets. That season will continue into late February and then outdoor cross-country competition will be in full swing at the collegiate level, a season Morgan is anxiously awaiting.

She was pleasantly surprised to find many of her teammates at Southwestern are Native Americans. Morgan is one of five Natives on the squad. She is joined by Morgan Benton, Navajo; Sydney Staples, Choctaw; Kacie Lancaster, Muscogee Creek; and Jax Pekley, Cheyenne-Arapaho.

As it turns out, Southwestern College searches opportunities for Native American students. A former Ada resident, Cedric Sunray, Choctaw, is on Southwestern’s admission staff.

“There are a lot of options for Native students here at Southwestern,” Sunray said. There’s a level of diversity that you don’t usually find at small colleges. We have students from all over the world, but we’re close to the Kaw, Tonkawa and Osage nations in Oklahoma, so it’s easy to attend the cultural events and pow wows there, at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, or the Prairie Band Potawatomi reservation near Topeka,” he added.

Don’t take it for granted

After winning the state championship in 2014 as a Plainview freshman, the opportunity to reap another title eluded Morgan. Injuries stymied her progress. Though she was winning first and second place trophies individually, it wasn’t enough to catapult the entire team into state championship contention.

“In my senior year, it dawned on me I only had two more cross-country meets left. I didn’t think I would miss (competing). I thought I’d be happy. I found myself crying at night because I didn’t want it to end,” Morgan said.

“On Oct. 5, 2017, I ran my last cross-country race (for Plainview) at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee. I came across the finish line and started bawling. I was a big mess. My parents were holding me in the mud as I cried. I thought ‘it’s over, it’s all over. I’ll never get to run in this jersey again. I can’t believe I took this all for granted.” Her mother, Becky, photographed the drama.

That race, coupled with a deep personal loss, changed how Morgan addresses the future. “You just don’t take things for granted. Make sure you take everything in. Make sure you tell people you love them. Be consistent in everything you do because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

She interprets her sister’s college application error as a “blessing from God.”

Morgan’s wish to continue competing was realized. The sisters are roommates. Mallory is active on the Southwestern cheerleading squad and immersed in studies with an eye toward communications. Morgan is majoring in biology, preparing to be a marine biologist. And, oddly enough, Southwestern has one of the finest marine biology departments in the nation. “I could not believe it. It’s in Kansas,” Morgan exclaimed.

She added that Southwestern College is proud to have the Chickasaw twins and goes out of its way to provide a quality education. The kitchen staff bakes goodies every day for them to enjoy. Coach Testa’s dedication is somewhat legendary as he “runs around constantly cheering you on, telling you your time, saying what place you are in. He runs everywhere,” Morgan said. “He invests in you. He wants you to be the very best you can be.”

Southwestern, a private college founded by the United Methodist Church, has won 30 consecutive league championships in track and cross-country. “Only five other universities in the entire nation can boast that kind of record,” Sunray explained. With the addition of so many quality Native American athletes, the college expects national recognition of its program in the coming year, he added.

The sisters are discovering the blessing of Chickasaw heritage even here in a 12,000-population town, 40 miles north of Ponca City, Oklahoma.

“Cedric Sunray is always showing us important information about the tribe, through books or newspaper clippings,” Morgan said. “It takes me back to my childhood where my grandmother, Becky, would have all sorts of tribal information or tribal relics in her house. We always knew our Chickasaw heritage was unique and understood it was a blessing.”

Her Native lineage comes from her father, who works in Ardmore as senior environmental engineer for Valero. Her mother is assistant vice president of the Ardmore First National Bank Broadway branch office.

The Chickasaw Nation is a constant presence in the twins’ lives, Morgan said. Through scholarship funds, clothing grants, birthday cards and more “the tribe lets you know you’re important. We are proud to be Chickasaw.”