Dear Native college student,
As a new academic year approaches, I want to share some words from my heart. Know that these words are not just from me; they are shared experiences and stories that I've learned from family, college classmates, mentors, teachers, and Native college students like yourself. I hope this letter serves as a source of inspiration as you journey towards attaining a college degree.
Like many of you, I knew college was in my pathway. When I was eight years old, I told my mom that I was going to college. And in May of 2015, I fulfilled that dream and graduated with a doctorate in higher education from the University of Arizona.
There are not many Native peoples on the college journey. Nationally, 1 percent of Natives receive a college degree each year. Some say we are a forgotten or "hidden" group in society. There are many days when you may feel alone, possibly invisible in your classroom, your residence hall, the campus recreation center, the student union--pretty much anywhere on campus. But take heart, you are not alone. You are very precious, and you have an array of amazing gifts to tap into for strength.
I wrote my dissertation about Navajo students' college experiences, based on interviews with ten students. It's titled, "Monsters and Weapons: Navajo students' stories on their journeys to college." The "monsters" are the challenges, and the "weapons" are what helped them to overcome the monsters.
You are probably already aware of some of these monsters: financial hardships, educational deficits, addiction, personal struggles. What I want to share with you here are the weapons. I hope they offer you a source of strength.
Our ancestors and grandparents taught us to respect and honor our spiritual traditions and faith in the Creator. A sacred teaching that you can practice is prayer. You may be far from family, your home and your ceremonial places; however you can always tap into prayer.
I was fortunate to have met Sarah, a college student who grew up with a single mom and older siblings on the Navajo Nation. Until she was 10, she lived in a home with no running water or electricity. She was the first in her family to attend college, which meant that finding financial resources to pay for it was a constant concern. Prayer helped her get through. She told me, "Even when, you're on your last string, and you feel like you have nowhere to go, you pray, and that's what I do."
When challenges seem unbearable, tap into your spiritual practices. It will give you strength to move forward. Also be comforted that there are many who are praying for you. Remember what Native elders and leaders say: "We are the answers to our ancestors prayers." Think about that: those powerful words breathe life into our purpose.
It can be hard to share with your family and friends your struggles while in college. Lets face it, because there are so few Natives in college, we often wonder who could relate to our situation or simply listen with an open heart. But it's important to have trusting relationships with loved ones whom you can share your joys and pains.
Let me share a story with you about a student named Jessie; Throughout high school, she was teased tremendously for not looking Native. Her extended family often made life more difficult; they told her that she would be a failure. Jessie's self-worth plummeted and when she was a teenager she almost took her life. In those dark days, she confided with her great-grandmother. Jessie shared, "My grandma told me, 'you shouldn't question your life. You were put on this earth for a reason. You shouldn't take away the life that you were given.' It was what I needed to hear at that time. I was fortunate enough to have talked to her the way I did."
Hopefully you already have trusting relationships with parents, grandparents, cousins, friends, or a partner. Reach out to them, communicate how you are doing, and seek their counsel when discouraged. They care for you and only want the best for you. It's OK to confide in them about your struggles. You'd be surprised, most people, no matter their age, have or are wrestling with something similar. They can relate and support you.
We as Native peoples have gone through much adversity, and yet we have persevered. I think its because we have the ability to transform the negative into positive. We all have "monsters" that surround us, but transformation is in our blood. It's the belief that we have to move forward, for our people and future generations.
I often ask Native students why they are in college. Most tell me their purpose is to help our people. That is a beautiful, visionary purpose. Many Native students, like you, see that the possibilities for a promising future rest upon obtaining a college degree. College is a means toward the betterment of our people.
One student I met, Sam, grew up in an urban city and struggled with not having a father. He became distracted by alcohol and drugs that plagued his family and friends. He told me, "I want to rise out of the struggle...I decided to pursue an education to advance myself so I can help advance other Natives and really help our people."
Think about why you are in college. You may hope to be a role model for family and even tribal nations at large. You may strive to defy the odds that are stacked against us. You may aspire to improve the well being of tribal nations. If you have yet to consider these reasons for attending and graduating from college, think about these transformative intentions. Think about the future and past generations, your daughter, son, niece, nephew, granddaughter/son, and grandma/pa. Move forward for them.
In closing, college may seem like a lonely journey, but remember that you are not alone, and you have powerful weapons. Many of us are praying for you, willing to listen to your experiences, and can help remind you about why you are on this journey. We are looking forward to the day when your name is called upon, when you walk across the stage and receive your degree. We'll be rejoicing with you. So, keep going, keep going, we are with you.
Amanda R. Tachine (Navajo), Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Scholar, Center for Indian Education
Arizona State University