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Fighting generational trauma through education

Laura Medina graduated with a master's degree in indigenous rights and social justice from the American Indian Studies program in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Laura Medina graduated with a master's degree in indigenous rights and social justice from the American Indian Studies program in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

July 08, 2019

For Arizona State University alumna Laura Medina, home started out as a shaky concept.

She was born in New Mexico and grew up on the Phoenix area’s Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, but she has roots in Michigan. 

American Indian Studies program alumna Laura Medina

Her mother is an Ojibwe tribal member from Michigan's Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians who was taken to Pennsylvania as a child, one of the thousands of Native Americans removed from their homelands and placed with nonindigenous parents in other states. After years of abuse allegations and concerns of cultural loss, the Indian Child Welfare Act brought a legal end to these forced relocations in 1978. 

Medina's mother moved to New Mexico for school when she was 17 and eventually started a family of her own. But Medina said those early experiences continued to affect her.  

“I think the way my mom was treated and the trauma of leaving home, all of that impacted her life and contributed to a lot of my own anxiety and social issues growing up,” she said. “Now I have a 2-year-old son, and I don't want him to inherit that same trauma.”

Medina’s determination drove her to turn an academic eye to the historical events that shaped her own life. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in American Indian studies from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2011 and a master’s degree in indigenous rights and social justice from the same program in 2018. She is the first in her family to obtain an advanced degree.

She said both tracks have helped her make sense of her experiences and provided a springboard to contribute research where gaps still remain.  

"I am an Ojibwe member of a Grand Traverse band in Michigan but have never actually lived there,” she said. “When I came to ASU, I began learning about all the ways colonization and generational trauma have played a role in that; my hope is that by sharing and developing that knowledge, my younger siblings and my son can be the ones that continue to build the foundation for new generations.”

Now working as a student success and retention coordinator for the American Indian Student Support Services(AISSS) network, she’s helping other Native American students navigate the trials of higher education she once faced herself.

Medina answered a few questions about her time at ASU, her research and the impact she hopes to make in the lives of new students.

Question: What made your path in graduate school unique? 

Answer: I did not complete my graduate studies in the two-year time span that is typical, and part of that was because I decided to take a break from academics to experience activism from the ground. I occupied Oak FlatLocated in the Tonto National Forest, Oak Flat is a site held sacred to Native Americans from the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation that has been a flashpoint for indigenous and environmental movements rallying against years of copper mining attempts in the area. for six months and went to protest at Standing RockIn 2016, thousands of protesters descended upon the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. when I was pregnant with my son. Some of that was material I wasn’t finding in books. My going out and experiencing it for myself was the first step in my effort to help change that.

Q: What did your research focus on and why?

A: My thesis looks specifically at Canada’s Idle No More movement and how scholars influence social change. This was a movement that began in 2012 against a series of laws that stood to drastically alter the First Nations’ sovereignty. I was looking at how scholars, professors or knowledge-seekers, in general, provide the fuel for indigenous resistance and change.

The movement began during my first semester within the American Indian studies graduate program. A lot of things were happening to me at home at the time. My mom had kicked me out and I was homeless, shuttling between campus and staying with people at the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. I think there is always this struggle of how we identify ourselves as indigenous people, especially in relation to land.

I was attracted to the Idle No More movement because many of my own Ojibwe people participated. It was a chance for me to connect back to my people at a time I really needed that.  

Q: What made you decide to start working as a staff member with AISSS after graduating last fall?

A: There are a lot of struggles Native students face. One way we can help is by creating a space for indigenous people that's unique to us and where people can feel at home. 

It took some time for me to feel like I was at home here. During my undergraduate years, I found it really hard to find a community or to feel at home. It wasn’t until my graduate studies that I really found that. I want to help make this program bigger and better so that students know they have a place to go. 

Q: What advice do you have for future students or what do you wish you’d known before coming to The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences?

A: I wish I knew how powerful being a student here can be. The College and the whole university has resources that your tuition is ultimately paying for, so it’s important to take advantage of that. 

Native American students can be humble and quiet, so it’s sometimes less likely they end up reaching out to staff. My advice is to find a person who can help you build upon and share your ideas, and to not be afraid to ask for help. I was able to find that with Laura Gonzales-Macias, and others at AISSS, and with the Native community at large. I think it’s important to continue creating that space and representation as a staff member. 

Q: How would you describe your Sun Devil story?

A: I was part of the first cohort of graduate students in the American Indian Studies program, so I sometimes felt like I was coming in at a time of transition. I wasn't entering into something with a strong legacy, but on the other hand, it made me feel like I had to be the one to help create it. By building the foundation, we’re making space for others to come into something more solid.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in 10 years?

A: I am considering a PhD track in sociology, and eventually, I’d like to return to Michigan to give back there. My goal is to learn my language and be fluent in Ojibwe to continue that connection.

One thing I find myself asking is what the world looks like through the lens of an Ojibwe woman. Knowledge of the land is such a powerful force in that sense. Part of my journey is about returning to my people in Michigan and putting what I’ve learned here toward helping my community and being an educator.

I would also like my son to grow up with that same understanding of his own land. He comes from the Navajo mountain area here in Arizona on his father’s side, and my father’s tribal land base is in New Mexico. Having my family be connected to all of those spaces is an important part for me because they all contribute to our understanding of who we are.