It’s only days before graduation and 10 of Arizona State University’s doctoral students are nearly 7,000 miles away from the ceremonial stage where they will receive their degrees.
Even after three years of rigorous study on critical Indigenous issues, the cohort is still doing research, this time with the Maori of New Zealand. The doctorate in justice studies provides students with a deeper understanding of the cultural, historical, social and political factors that have influenced New Mexico’s Pueblo nations. Field research on another continent with other indigenous doctoral students and scholars is one of several things that set this doctoral program apart from others.
All cohort members served more than 15 years as educators, advocates, lawyers or health care professionals working on issues affecting Pueblo people prior to enrolling in the program. For example, Corrine Sanchez (San Ildefonso Pueblo) serves as executive director of an organization that helps Native American women overcome some of the challenges they face, and Michele Suina (Cochiti Pueblo) directs health education initiatives for indigenous communities.
Because the program works to strengthen students’ understanding and commitment to the Pueblo nations, it was designed so that students in this cohort could stay in New Mexico throughout their studies to continue working and serving their communities.
Professors flew to New Mexico to teach courses and students flew to Arizona to take certain short courses. Video conferencing, night and weekend classes and travel modules provided greater flexibility for learning.
“This program has reaffirmed my belief that when you pull people together, they rally, bolster and enhance each other’s work in really amazing ways,” said Bryan Brayboy, a Borderlands Professor of Indigenous Education and Justice in the School of Social Transformation at ASU and director of the Center for Indian Education. “It has forced us to rethink and expand the role of a doctorate: it’s no longer about knowledge in singularity, but knowledge in collaboration and knowledge for community benefit.”
Just over 100 doctorates will be awarded to Native Americans nationally this year, about half of those are PhD’s, Brayboy said.
While interest in a doctoral program had stirred among Pueblo leaders for years, the idea gained traction from ASU professors Elizabeth Sumida Huaman and Brayboy, and Carnell Chosa and Regis Pecos, co-directors of the Leadership Institute, a think tank based at the Santa Fe Indian School that convenes leaders to discuss challenges and creates opportunities in Pueblo communities.
In 2012, the Institute hosted a Pueblo Convocation, where more than 300 members and leaders from all 19 Pueblo communities in New Mexico gathered to discuss critical issues. Ten of these issues were deemed priorities: the environment, governance, art, families and communities, land, education, health, economic development, law and Native language. These areas have since guided school curricula, museum exhibits and the Pueblo Indian doctoral cohort.
Convocation participants agreed they needed to build a stronger pipeline of Pueblo leaders who not only had a better understanding of these issues and their related challenges, but also had the capability to address them, said Chosa, co-founder of the Leadership Institute.
With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Leadership Institute co-established the doctoral program at ASU’s School of Social Transformation in 2012. Individuals who were highly invested in their communities were accepted by ASU and admitted that fall. The foundation’s support provided full scholarships for the 10 students in this cohort.
Launching the program was not without its challenges, said Chosa, who also is a member of the program’s inaugural graduating class.
Throughout history, Western education often meant erasing native customs and values. The doctorate program shows by re-conceptualizing education, research and education can support and maintain community priorities.
“For hundreds of years, our people have had to work and fight, strategically and creatively, for what we enjoy today. Throughout this program, I’ve thought in the back of my mind ‘how do we continue this legacy? If we stop participating, caring, contributing, working, what does that mean for the future?’ ” said Chosa. “While this cohort is a small piece of a much larger timeframe, it’s allowing us to add to our foundation for the next generation.”
All 10 students completed the program together, which culminated in a rigorous three-part dissertation designed to be more practical for their communities and the public at large -- a book chapter, a journal article and a public policy position paper. The chapters and journals will be published, and the policy papers are being reviewed and implemented by Pueblo stakeholders, such as governments and educational institutions.
All students selected topics closely aligned with their field of work, making recommendations for how to reduce health disparities among Pueblo people, address climate change on Native lands and foster youth identity with their Pueblo communities, among other topics.
“This program has opened my eyes and opened doors for my future, for the things I want to do to be an advocate for our people,” said graduate Dr. Kenneth Lucero (Zia Pueblo), a field representative for U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich. “Now, I have the potential to impact policy at a national level by elevating the strength of our local Pueblo communities and tribal people across the country.”