‘Soul sisters’ never too late to get degree asu now access, excellence, impact electricity billy elliot backing track

##

Ranging in age from 36 to 69, Espinoza, Edwardine Thomas, Nina Allison, Marcella Hall and Starleen Somegustava have completed work on master’s degrees in interdisciplinary studies as members of the Gila River Culture and Language Teacher Cohort, a partnership between Arizona State University’s Center for Indian Education and New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, and the Gila River Indian Community Tribal Education Department. The first-of-its-kind program trains future teachers on their home reservation with a focus on tribal history and keeping alive the Akimel O’otham language.

“We have all been through a lot of stuff together,” said Thomas, a 56-year-old grandmother of four. “These are my sisters. We’ve gone through a lot of stuff. We’re still going through a lot of stuff. Every week we come to class and we lean on each other.”

All have experienced similar challenges while pursuing their education — from getting back into good study and attendance habits, to feeling a sense of responsibility for their immediate and extended families that is such an important piece of their culture, to balancing work and school, to solving the mysteries that are laptop computers and PowerPoint presentations.

“I’ve been going to school off and on since 2014, starting at South Mountain (Community College), and I would say this year has been the most stressful year ever,” said Hall, 36, a cultural instructor for fifth- through eighth-grade students at Sacaton Middle School, about an hour south of Phoenix. She has a daughter and is caring for a niece and nephew.

“I always tell people I’m a lifelong learner,” Thomas said. “I’ve been going to school since after high school. I went to college for one year but had to drop out, just for family things. I had to take care of my siblings. So I had to work.”

Now, she is the only member of her family to earn a college degree. Her work at Blackwater focuses on making home visits to people in the community and working with parents and children to reach child-development milestones in gross and fine motor skills and language.

“It’s going to be limited to about 10 families per district, and hopefully this will be like a steppingstone for other people to come and join our group, because we’re open to anyone helping us — other community members that are fluent in language or dances or basket making.”

“I had retired from a school district in California, where I was a special education (instructional assistant),” she said. “I was at the governance center to talk to a lady about my paperwork. I wasn’t looking for a job. This young lady was putting up flyers that said ‘special needs (teacher) urgently needed.’

“I would see him every morning and say, ‘Good morning, what is your name? My name is Priscilla.’ I said that over and over for six months. One morning I said, ‘Hi, buddy,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Hi, ’scilla!’ Oh my gosh, I knew then that this is it.”

The women in the cohort — many of whom are able to participate because of private giving — agree that they are motivated most by what they represent for their families and community members. Espinoza said the cohort members hope their successes will “snowball.”

“In many ways, I think ASU is doing lots of things right regarding our work with Native students,” said Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, President’s Professor, director of the Center for Indian Education and ASU’s special adviser to the president on American Indian Affairs. “In our conversations, it became evident that we — collectively — need to do a better job of creating a welcoming environment for Native students. We can — and will — do better in the future.”

The initial effort, a first-of-its-kind magazine geared specifically for Native American students written by an all indigenous staff, will find its way into the hands of ASU’s native student population in two weeks, perfectly timed for Native American Heritage Month, which starts Nov. 1.

That’s why ASU has made it a priority to improve their college career through a suite of new initiatives that addresses how higher education works, how to engage other Native people on campus, how to navigate academic support services, how to get the most out of ASU, and how to build toward a meaningful future to serve their tribal communities.

ASU has also sought to increase the number of American Indians on campus through specialized programs, including the SPIRIT orientation program, which helps Native students adjust to college life over a two-week period; INSPIRE, a one-week youth camp at ASU’s Polytechnic campus; and RECHARGE, which started in 2012 with 90 students.

“The lesson asks freshmen to share their feelings or experiences of connection to place, belonging and identity,” said K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a professor with ASU’s School of Social Transformation who is working with Tachine on the pilot lesson plan.

The lesson will include a video produced by ASU Now featuring President Michael M. Crow, Brayboy and several Native American students discussing the fact that Arizona State University, Arizona and the United States are built on the ancestral homelands of Native peoples.

ASU 101 courses are required for all freshmen, and instructors have the opportunity to select lessons from an array of topics. “Leveraging Our Place” will introduce ASU students to a sense of place and encourage them to consider the question: What does it mean to live on Indian land?