Students credit parents, teachers for inspiration to ‘climb the ladder’

In light of my ongoing college gift packages project, what I learned from putting together the gifts is that I cannot do everything on my own.

My mother, sisters, aunt, and grandmother took on the responsibility of helping me purchase, organize, and distribute packages. Like college, I could not have succeeded without their help and support.

Ravonelle Yazzie

This section is dedicated to the second half of respondents who shared their educational journeys and acknowledge those who helped them attain higher education. The first half of the responses was printed in last week’s edition of the Navajo Times.

In exchange for their stories I sent them a college gift package last week.

Students answered the following questions: How do you balance your language and/or culture identity with academics? What impacts generated your determination to apply or continue your college education?

Parents responded to the following questions: What story of yours do you think influenced your college son or daughter to pursue an education? What obstacles did you have to overcome before you were able to accept your son or daughter going to college?

Latoya Neswood, 23, of Sawmill, Arizona, is working toward her associate degree in general studies at Utah State University-Eastern in Blanding, Utah. Nearing graduation, she reflected back on the struggles she faced when first applying for college.

“In high school I had no idea what college was or what I needed to do on my behalf,” stated Neswood. “Unfortunately my (high) school counselor never talked with me about college.”

Nonetheless, Neswood is determined. Despite losing her father two years into college, she recently returned to school to finish her degree after taking a couple years off. Neswood was nominated to the National Honor Society of Collegiate Scholars at her school.

Just like Latoya, Erica Neswood attends Utah State University-Eastern in Blanding, Utah. Originally from Sawmill, Arizona, Neswood is a first-year student who highlighted her reactions to her first day of college.

“My first day in class I realized and thought this was nothing like high school,” stated Neswood. “Teachers weren’t called teachers, here teachers are called professors.”

Neswood acknowledges her father Eric Neswood as being her biggest motivator and as someone who encouraged her to pursue college.

“If it wasn’t for my father I wouldn’t be where I would be,” noted Erica. “Living a college life is something new to me. I never pictured myself being this far.”

Jennie Whitehorse of Kayenta, Arizona, was inspired to pursue higher education at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, because of her father Walker Whitehorse’s upbringing.

Her father grew up in Tséyaats’ózii (Narrow Canyon), Arizona, an area where he raised livestock, cared for the cornfield, and spoke Diné. At seven or eight years old he attended summer school, then went on to Kayenta Boarding School and Tuba City Boarding School. “He continued going to school until he got a degree in diesel engineering,” said Jennie.

She stated, “His story of how he got to where he is now tells of how hard he works at it. From living in the deep reservation, he kept at it and it inspires me.”

Walker added that he went to school for 20 years and that he is still learning.

“My job now is a good job. It still requires me to learn,” said Walker.

He noted, “It’s hard to get off the reservation because where are you going to go? Who do you know? You just have to take a chance. It was hard but I went to school. Got a good job now and I’m glad I did it.”

Adrianna Nicolay of Shiprock takes pride in her Diné identity at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.

“Being a Diné student demands resilience. Higher education institutions were not designed for our people but we are resilient in that we insert ourselves into these spaces as we were instructed to by our ancestors,” said Nicolay.
She also discussed the challenges she faces at an institution where Diné bizaad is nowhere to be heard.

“Not hearing Diné bizaad on a daily basis like I do at home is the strangest thing,” she said.

Due to this experience she is motivated to find ways to continue speaking Diné at her university.

While youth are now encouraged to speak Diné in schools, parent Jenae Herrera struggled to learn the English language in boarding school during the mid-60s.

Jenae is the mother of Shandiin Herrera who attends Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. They are from Monument Valley, Utah.

Jenae stated, “My stories of getting an education through boarding schools, Christian placement homes and finally to a private Christian academy did have an impact on my daughter.”

Overall, Jenae felt that she had some heartbreaking experiences but also some memories she will always cherish during her time in school.

Jenae noted, “The backlash that so many (boarding school students) felt in those early days towards boarding school institutions were evident.”

When Shandiin asked her mother Jenae what word she would use to describe her educational journey, she said, “desperate.”

“Desperate to learn, desperate to flee, but always desperate to climb that ladder so that someday my kids would not have to struggle as I had to get an education,” she said.

Shandiin is a junior majoring in public policy with a minor in cultural anthropology.

Skyenne M. Soriano is a freshman at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and is from Window Rock and Santa Ana, California. Soriano thanks her fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Hanks for supporting her college career at around age nine.

“Mrs. Hanks gave me my first hopes about college. I knew no matter where or how, I was going to college,” stated Soriano. “I think what impacted me greatly was that I had the opportunities my parents didn’t have.”

Through her parents’ sacrifices, Soriano is able to love education.

“I have to be selfish with my education,” she said. “It is hands-down the definite choice that I don’t regret. I love where I am.”

Soriano does not take her schooling for granted; she plans to be someone like Mrs. Hanks.

“I’ll inspire a few nine-year-olds just as Mrs. Hanks did for me,” noted Soriano. “I’m determined to continue my education because I desire to help others. People are always going to need help.”

Gift packages for all 11 students included items such as laundry detergent, dryer sheets, toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, gift card, energy bar, Navajo tea, Cracker Jacks, popcorn ball, study snack, school supplies, and more.

The remaining college gift packages will be taken to KTNN for radio listeners who qualify as current Navajo college students or are parents of current Navajo college students.

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