A Journey of Excellence

A few weeks ago I was asked what it meant to be an American Indian Graduate Center Scholar (AIGC), an organiztion I joined when I received the Gates Millennium Scholarship. I hold a very special place in my heart for this organization because it was the very first scholarship I recieved. To be quite honest, this scholarship was the very first organization to invest not only in my education, but in me as a person. As my college graduation raidly approaches, I have finally found the words to convey what this has truly meant to me.

I was seventeen years old when I received the Gates Millennium Scholarship. I had just been accepted to Duke University and my entire community was in a state of pride and astonishment. I began seeing my dream of attending an elite university unfold before my eyes. This dream would have remained dormant if it were not for the Gates Millennium Scholarship. A year prior to starting the application process, I met an AIGC representative at a summer program called College Horizons. After expressing my interest this AIGC representative told me, “we choose one of our own to learn with the best.” Immediately, I knew I wanted to be an AIGC scholar, and I knew I wanted my success to not only be my own but shared amongst my people on the Navajo Nation. I recognized that obtaining a college degree and pursuing a career that had the potential to transform the lives of my community members would be my way of giving back to everyone who had raised me. I did not receive this prestigious award alone. I received this award because of the bus drivers who drove me to school every morning at 5:30 a.m., the janitors who always stayed a little later so that I could finish my homework in the computer labs, the local businesses who donated money so that I may attend summer school at Phillips Exeter Academy, and because of the amazing teachers who never told a little Navajo girl that her dreams to attend Duke University were too big for a reservation girl.

Being an AIGC Scholar has meant being an advocate, a representative, and a leader. Duke has been academically rigorous, socially draining, and very early on I realized this school has very little support for Native students. There are no classes on Native American studies, no designated space for Native students on campus, no Native professors, and no Native advisors. Through my role as an Executive member of the Native American Student Alliance I have advocated for myself and my Native peers. From planning events, meeting with Duke staff/administrators, and being present, I have seen growth in our Native community from three students my first year to over twenty now. On campus, more and more Duke students and faculty are more vigilant not only about the Native presence at Duke, but about Native issues in North Carolina and across the country. Additionally, by utilizing my networks, AIGC included, I was able to be a part of the historic founding of a chapter of Alpha Pi Omega, a sorority for Native American women. I have served as both the Vice President and President for this organization that supports current and future Native women at Duke.

Over the course of my college years I have given guest lectures in American history courses where I shared history through a Native American perspective, highlighting events like the Relocation Act, American Indian Movement, Indian Citizenship Act, and Navajo Code Talkers. I have also done presentations in Environmental Policy classes where I discussed the history of Navajo uranium mining and the effects we are still living with. I have assisted in the planning of an alternative spring break trip to the Navajo Nation sponsored by the Duke Women’s Center. During that trip we studied Domestic Violence by visiting shelters, clinics, and the U.S Justice Court. In addition to my campus involvement I have received recognition for my leadership and involvement with Native youth by being nominated and named a Champion for Change by the Center for Native American Youth at The Aspen Institute. I have been honored to be the first Native American student at Duke University to receive the Udall Scholarship. In the same year I was selected to participate in the Udall Native American Congressional Internship where I worked in the office of U.S. Senator Tom Udall.

I stand here today because of the prayers of my people who believed in me long before I recognized my own strength. I was told that to be an effective leader I need a seat at the table where decisions that affect my community are made. Throughout my time at Duke, I have consistently sought to broaden my perspective and world view, and, more importantly, I have consistently thought of how I can take my academic knowledge to bring about true transformation in the lives of women and men on the Navajo Nation. Upon graduation I will serve as a Lead for America Hometown Fellow, a 2-year program through which I will work as a Policy Analyst and Project Consultant for my home community of Monument Valley, Utah.

My journey of excellence truly began when I joined the AIGC cohort and I am extremely proud to be a part of an organization that continues to contribute to the future of Indigenous communities. I have grown into a woman with the confidence to voice my opinions independent of what anyone around me thinks. I have learned the true power in bringing my authentic voice to everything I do. Most importantly, I am no longer trying to be a scholar, a representative, or a leader; I am a Duke scholar, I proudly represent the Navajo Nation, and every day I lead by example. My hope is to continue to inspire youth to pursue higher education, realize the power in their voice, and become active in their communities. I believe education is the powerhouse for reinvigorating cultural norms and I am proud to have had the opportunity to contribute to enhancing the Duke experience for Native students. As a proud AIGC Scholar, I continue to make the path better for those who will come after me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published by Shandiin Herrera

Diné, Duke University Alumna, Lead for America Hometown Fellow

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