Tisch Scholars Organize College Fair for Navajo Students
A group of sophomore Tisch Scholars traveled to Shiprock, New Mexico, over Spring Break to help improve college access for youth in the Navajo reservation.
A group of sophomores in Tisch College’s flagship Scholars program spent last spring break in Shiprock, New Mexico, where they organized a college and career fair for Navajo students and learned about the pressing issues affecting Native Americans there and across the country.
The trip, a brand new initiative in the Tisch Scholars program, was organized jointly with Wetona Becenti, Director of the Office of Diné Youth and of the local Boys and Girls Club. Becenti had the original idea for the project and identified education and college access as significant issues facing her community: only half of all Native American students graduate from high school, and just about 5 percent of those go on to a four-year college.
“It was a great opportunity to understand more about the history of the U.S. and learn more about a people who are often forgotten,” says Sara Allred, Scholars Program Administrator at Tisch College. “It was good to go in and have a specific task, but also have an opportunity to have these different cultural experiences and meet different people.”
Allred accompanied the students to New Mexico, as did Mindy Nierenberg, Senior Program Manager at Tisch College, and Peg Turner, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design who has long-standing ties to the Navajo community in New Mexico and helped prepare the students through several education sessions before the trip.
The college and career fair was the highlight of the trip. Nearly 20 schools, many of them local universities with special offerings for Native American students, were represented at the fair. More than 150 high-schoolers attended the event, not only browsing through different college choices, but enjoying workshops put together by the Tufts students. These sessions touched on topics like how to choose a college, how to get financial aid, test-taking, and college essays.
Throughout the rest of their week in New Mexico, the Tisch Scholars worked with students at Tsé Bit’a’í Middle School and Shiprock High School. They had prepared a curriculum that would compliment their college skills class, but quickly found themselves having to adjust their plans.
“We went in there with certain expectations of what we were going to teach them, but once we got there everything was different than we ever expected,” says Kim Mendoza, A16, one of the Tufts students on the trip. They quickly found that the students were more engaged in small group discussions, and focused on trying to reach them in whichever way was most effective.
For Soerny Cruz, A16, one of trip’s student leaders, adapting to the students’ needs was difficult, but an invaluable learning experience. “That was definitely part of the challenge, that we weren’t all on the same page,” she says. “I’m really glad, though, that we were able to have those discussions within our own group and then bring it to the coordinator and the teacher, and they were really receptive. We worked together, and ultimately we came to a compromise.”
The Tisch Scholars also had fruitful small group discussions with the Shiprock middle-schoolers, and helped them film videos on important topics like leadership, risk-taking, and bullying. Often, the Tufts students found themselves doing more listening than talking, as they learned about the deep-seated problems in Shiprock.
“People were pretty open and quick to talk about issues,” says Allred, the Scholars Program Administrator. She and the Tufts students were particularly stricken by an exhibition at the school called the Wailing Wall Project, where the local students had posted anonymous letters to relatives about how issues like domestic abuse and alcoholism personally affected them.
For Cruz, those letters were an example of something she saw throughout the trip: great dignity in the face of adversity.
“I think of all the strength that I saw, and I think of all the perseverance even though the things that they are struggling with are so hard and in your face, like drug abuse, and domestic violence, and all of those things,” she says. “A lot of it goes back to the Navajo culture and traditions: the way they carry themselves and the way they want to have a peaceful community.”
The Scholars also got a taste of that Navajo culture through different events like a traditional fry-bread taco dinner, weaving demonstrations, and visits to breathtaking sites like Canyon de Chelly and the Shiprock, itself, a towering isolated rock hill that gives the town its name and is part of Navajo origin myths.
Through these activities, and through interactions with local leaders like sisters LaVonna and Helena George, the Scholars learned about other pressing community issues, like the lack of responsive emergency services and dangerous levels of contamination from uranium mining that has gone mostly ignored by the federal government.
“Something Soerny said always will stick with me: ‘I can’t believe Boston exists and this place exists, at the same time and in the same country,’” says Mendoza. “The United States tries to hide some ugly truths.”
Indeed, according to Cruz, one of the messages she and the rest of the Tisch Scholars constantly heard was an urging to bring some of these uncomfortable truths to light. “One of the huge takeaways for me was that they would all say: ‘Go and tell our stories, share the stories, we want people to know so that they can do something about it,’” she says.
Since coming back from the trip, the Tufts students have been committed to continuing their relationship with the Shiprock community and doing their part to support the people they met. “The students are thinking critically about their experiences there and about the barriers people face,” says Allred. “We’re still working on that follow-up in order to keep up a good relationship with Shiprock High School … I’m very hopeful of what was established,” adds Cruz.
For all of the Tisch Scholars, the trip was an invaluable opportunity to practice their civic engagement skills in a new, challenging setting. And for at least a few students, like Kim Mendoza, the experience was also impactful on a deeper level.
“Before I went, I was playing with the idea of working with youth, particularly urban youth,” says Mendoza. “I definitely came out of it knowing that I was going to teach, and I was going to go into a public school; that was definitely set in stone for me after going there.”
Meanwhile, for Cruz, the trip provided an opportunity for deep personal contemplation about the challenges faced by communities everywhere.
“I always reflect on what it means to be of a historically marginalized community, being of Latino descent, so I understand to an extent what that is like,” she says. “But the extent to which that has happened to the Native American community is nothing that any populations of color or any white institutions can even compare to. It was humbling, it was really saddening, it was really powerful, and still very frustrating. That was one of those things that kept me grounded through the whole time. It was just a constant reminder that there’s always so much work to be done.”