Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement.
When a teenage boy in his community committed suicide, Jameson Lopez decided he wanted to do something for his tribe.
That something was dedicating his life to higher education and finding opportunities for Native Americans to obtain their degrees.
“Native students often have problems adjusting to college life because of historical forced assimilation and colonization,” said Lopez, a Quechan tribe member from Fort Yuma, California, who is earning a PhD in education policy and evaluation at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “Culturally, our traditions are much different and often undervalued. We are striving to make economic advances using traditional knowledge that was impossible in previous decades because of societal disadvantages.”
The 32-year-old Lopez said he immediately connected with the Native community on campus after a four-year stint in the U.S. Army. Forging friendships and finding mentors is what eventually got him through, said Lopez.
Today, Lopez serves as a mentor to many youth and often travels to Native communities to deliver a message of hope for a better life.
“It all boils down to — if I’m asked to say or do something and I don’t, that opportunity might go to someone who isn’t Native American,” Lopez said. “Then it becomes a lost opportunity for Native youth to hear and experience something positive.”
After Lopez graduates on May 7, he is headed to Tucson where he will become a tenure-track professor at the University of Arizona and continue his research in Indian Country. He expressed that he wants to support tribal nation building by advancing the capacity of tribal nations to collect and analyze data. He hopes that his effort to collect data with tribes will inform tribal decisions and policies that create new opportunities for economic advances for Native people.
Lopez recently spoke to ASU Now about his positive experiences at the university.
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study education?
Answer: There are million “aha” moments. But this is the first one that stuck out when you asked that question. I was attending a wake under a brush arbor on a remote reservation for a young kid who had committed suicide. Something that was common to the community but uncommon to our traditions as Native people. I knew I wanted to give back and help in some way. I saw education as an avenue of hope. But later on I realized that it couldn’t be any education, it had to be an education that could sustain and revitalize Native communities through nation building. So I started focusing on education as a means of nation building in indigenous communities.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU?
A: I remember being taught in elementary school about inventors such as Thomas Edison, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, etc. You ever wonder why we were mostly taught about white, European-descendant inventors in elementary school? Surely there were inventors from other ethnicities that we could have learned about. In my later years of life, I realized there were actually lots of inventors from various ethnicities and even Native inventors.
A few years ago, I was listening to a lecture from a Native scholar here at ASU. They were talking about assimilation, etc., but the lecturer was making a point about traditional Native marriages and went on to say that it was acceptable (in some tribes) for older Native women to marry young, "wild" native men. Because it was believed that the older woman would "tame" the young wild man. I looked at my friend, looked back at the professor, looked back at my friend, looked back at the professor, and looked back at my friend and said, “Dang, Natives invented cougars!” But in all seriousness, while at ASU, I found out more things that were invented by Natives.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: I (had) just got home from Iraq. I was accepted into a few other major universities, but just coming home from the war, I wanted to be close to home, family and friends. ASU took a chance on me. I didn’t have the best GRE scores, but I believe my community engagement was what the program was interested in. So in some ways, ASU also chose me. It was a reciprocal choosing.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: I started graduate school right after I got out of the Army. I was still a little rigid. Whenever my colleagues would get stressed I would say, “Don’t worry, no one is going to die.” I’ve got a little smarter since then and now say to those who get stressed, “Don’t worry, we’ll all die … eventually.” Keep your life in perspective. You just might fail, which is OK. Get back up and keep going. And honestly if you’re not failing a little bit, you’re probably not doing enough. And remember — worst-case scenario, you fail out of college. To me, that’s not what makes someone a failure, though; not trying is what makes someone a failure. Remember that your heart follows what you treasure. Your treasure doesn’t follow your heart. So face life intently, embrace fear (everyone is afraid), when your heart beats faster take some deep breaths and then face life with open arms, wide eyes and a desire to do good in this world. And quit taking student loans if you can help it!
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus?
A: The Center for Indian Education is my favorite spot because of the people. I’ve never been in a place with so many indigenous scholars researching, advocating and strategizing to move indigenous communities forward.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: Tenure-track assistant professor of higher education at the University of Arizona.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: Start an urban intertribal indigenous college that focuses on educating Native students to address issues concerning; missing and murdered indigenous women, nation building, sustaining and revitalizing cultural traditions, and the self-determination and sovereignty of tribal nations.
Top photo courtesy of Chrissy Blake
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