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Honoring Native American voices

Honoring Native American Voices
Warner grad's award-winning dissertation details paths to success for understudied population

She didn’t grow up on tribal lands, but Nizhoni Chow-Garcia ‘16W (PhD) spent summers on one, in the capital of the Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Arizona.
Nizhoni Chow-GarciaHer mother, who had grown up there, always said she didn’t want her daughters to be anything like her—someone raised in poverty and choked by unemployment, substance abuse, and mental health issues, someone without a high school diploma and access to opportunities for a better life.
“My mom and other relatives associated who we are and where we come from as a fault and a barrier to what they saw as success, which is very much perpetuated by the persistent legacy of colonization and forced assimilation,” explains Chow-Garcia. “It took me earning my bachelor’s and master’s and doctoral degrees to realize that’s not the case. What we need to emphasize is that the cultural integrity we bring to higher education—the way we think is much more indigenous and relational and really builds upon what meaning we make of this life—is a strength.”
Chow-Garcia does just that in her dissertation titled “Educational Pathways for Native American Graduates: Stories through the STEM Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral Degrees.” The 270-page work, which recently won her two major dissertation awards, addresses the often disconnected pathways available to Native Americans wanting to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
As she points out, Native Americans still make up only 1 percent of total college enrollment and are the least likely to graduate from college, with only 40.2 percent earning bachelor’s degrees within six years, the lowest rate of all racial and ethnic groups, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The dissertation also sheds light on an understudied population in higher education literature.
Chow-Garcia made sure her qualitative study was guided by her “specific tribal epistemology,” which honors interconnectedness over the dominant Westernized custom to reward success through individual efforts. As a result, she incorporated an indigenous-based research paradigm—a lens through which education researchers and practitioners can better understand and support Native Americans and their academic pursuits. 
She also was guided by the Diné, or Navajo, concept of Hózhó, the belief in living in beauty, harmony, balance, happiness and good health.
“This work speaks much more than I ever will,” she says.
The work moves beyond Chow-Garcia’s personal background and statistics by sharing stories of nine Native Americans who received bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees (or a combination) and entered STEM fields. Chow-Garcia had been connected to them through her role as director of the Native American Future Stewards Program at Rochester Institute of Technology.
“It wasn’t until I was actually speaking to her that I realized all the things I’d gone through and how hard I had to fight to get here,” recalls Naomi Lee, who grew up on the Seneca Nation of Indians’ Cattaraugus Reservation, earned a PhD in chemistry from the University of Rochester in 2013, and is a postdoctoral fellow in molecular genetics and microbiology at the University of New Mexico. “But even though it was hard, every step was worth it.”
Lee is involved in a special program, funded through the National Institutes of Health, that lets her teach and do research, allowing her to be a mentor for people like her who grew up poor and with limited academic counsel.
Another participant, who received his PhD in physics from Princeton, is a research scientist at RIT. Yet another is an aerospace engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“They’re trailblazers,” Chow-Garcia says of those who shared their stories.
She’s feeling a bit like one herself these days, at least along her own path, as she settles into a position as associate director of inclusive excellence at California State University, Monterey Bay. She started the job in February 2017. Her past positions were in direct student support services, but she knew—and had been encouraged by Indigenous mentors, and faculty and staff— that she could have much more of an institutional and structural impact on diversity and inclusion initiatives, in all its identities and ideas, by taking on an administrative role.
“Our voices aren’t heard, and I really want to bring people together,” she says. “We need to get over being scared of unknowns, and get to an environment where we embrace asking questions and learning from others who are different from us.”
Chow-Garcia hopes the stories she highlights “transform discourses of deficiency and disempowerment to those of collective strength, possibility and action.” When she worked with the Haudenosaunee during her time with the Native American Future Stewards Program, she often was asked how those with advanced degrees could best work with—and give back to—their tribes.
That’s a big question, one deserving of deep conversation and, as Chow-Garcia envisions it (buoyed by her recent awards), a conversation her dissertation can prompt and support.
“I’ve had to continually remind myself that this isn’t just my work,” she explains. “It’s so much more about my participants and Native students in general, and how we, together, are working to build more thriving and successful indigenous communities.”
“I feel a lot of gratitude for being able to have gone on this journey,” she adds. “I feel as though I’ve taken my mother’s hand and returned home on a path that emphasizes indigenous knowledges and ways of being, a path that thinks deeply about the relationships we espouse in our lives and the impact it has on future generations. It’s my hope that this study, through the lives of these Native STEM trailblazers, brings to light and life a new way of being, a Hózhóogo Iina (Beauty Way of Life).”
More About Chow-Garcia’s Dissertation Awards 
Chow-Garcia is “still very much in a state of shock and disbelief” over winning two major dissertation awards.
The American College Personnel Association’s 2016 Marylu McEwen Dissertation of the Year Award recognizes scholarly excellence and a substantial contribution to knowledge in the general field of student affairs and student services.
The NASPA Foundation’s Melvene D. Hardee Dissertation of the Year Award, also received in 2016, commends outstanding research conducted by doctoral degree recipients already in, or intending to enter, the student affairs profession.
Chow-Garcia’s dissertation advisor, former Warner School faculty member Stephanie J. Waterman, PhD, says Chow-Garcia centered her indigeneity throughout the dissertation in a highly sophisticated, complicated way.
“She is a model for others who come after her,” says Waterman, now at the University of Toronto, “showing that their Indigenous knowledge system is central and important and valid and rigorous.”
Chow-Garcia’s sense of responsibility to the population she examined came from her personal integrity, adds Waterman: “She is capable of whatever she sets her sights on. I see her doing great things and can’t wait until she starts publishing.”
Chow-Garcia sees publishing in her future as well, another momentous commitment despite moving earlier this year across the country for a new job that has her adapting to an administrative role for the first time.
“It would be nice to take a break, but I can’t,” she says. “There’s additional pressure and accountability in a very good way. I think that it’s important for me to continue to push myself.”