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Navajo woman earns 3 degrees in 15-year journey at ASU

Jessica Antonio overcame many obstacles, including a spinal injury, to her degrees

April 27, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Jessica Antonio’s journey to graduation from Arizona State University is “one for the books,” as she says.

 By the numbers:

  • Years she spent working toward commencement: 15.
  • Degrees she is receiving: Three — in business, American Indian Studies and nutrition.
  • Campuses she attended: Three.
  • Graduation ceremonies she registered for: Five.
  • Obstacles she overcame: Many.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted life, Antonio had a remarkable story, taking 15 years and overcoming a spinal cord injury to get to graduation. And with the end in sight, her final semester looked very different than what she expected.

Antonio’s path to ASU started when she was a senior at Cienega High School in Tucson. She applied to the W. P. Carey School of Business and was accepted. But the family had no money for college.

“My dad said, ‘We’re not that type of family,” she said.

So they bought her a computer, a printer, a stack of envelopes and a pack of stamps.

“I think I applied to five scholarships per week,” she said.

A recruiter visited her school and encouraged her to apply for the SPIRIT program, a two-week summer stay on the ASU campus that prepares Native American students for college life. That program helped her finalize financial aid and scholarships, so in the fall of 2005, she came to ASU.

Antonio, who is Navajo, had good grades in high school in every subject except history. When her history teacher asked her why, she told him, “It’s not my history. I’m Native American first and the only time you mention us is when there’s trauma, the Long Walk or Trail of Tears or Thanksgiving or Lewis and Clark. It doesn’t tell me anything about my heritage or culture or language.”

So as a freshman, Antonio was excited to take a class in Native American history along with her general-education classes. And while it was a grueling, 400-level course, it was life-changing.

“It answered all my questions. It covered the AIM movement, assimilation, boarding schools, everything that Native Americans have dealt with since colonization,” she said, so she decided to add American Indian Studies as a minor.

As Antonio approached the completion of her business degree, she took a class in business ethics that highlighted an existential crisis for her. The course required a case study in which a mining company is polluting the water of an indigenous community of people.

“The question was, ‘How do you resolve this issue?’ And the choices were to pay for education, build houses with plumbing, build roads, give them electricity and internet. I said, ‘Stop mining,’” she said.

“And I thought that maybe business wasn’t the route I wanted to take. I was more on the humanities side.”

So she decided to get dual degrees, in business and American Indian Studies.

Around that time, Antonio was diagnosed with diabetes, a condition that afflicts both her parents. And not long after that, her arm was badly cut in a car accident.

“I was beat up and not going to the gym, and I was gaining weight,” she said.

“So I saw a nutritionist for the first time.”

Drawn to the idea of focusing on health and sharing that with her Navajo community, Antonio applied to earn a third degree, in nutrition, and began taking the required science courses in fall 2011. By this point, she had attended classes at the Polytechnic, Tempe and Downtown Phoenix campuses.

She loved her nutrition classes and doing community outreach, and she had a part-time job in addition to a full-time course load. But in 2013, Antonio was in a terrible car accident, which injured her spinal cord. She had to take a medical leave from ASU, which ended up lasting four years.

In the first year after the crash, she was in constant pain.

“I had to sleep on the floor and crawl to the bathroom,” she said. “At the time, my focus was only on the basics, getting to the restroom, eating something, drinking water and going to sleep.”  

It was a dark time.

“I couldn’t pay my rent or my bills. The hardest thing was returning all the scholarship money to the people who had invested in my academics,” she said.

She got food from a church pantry and hygiene supplies from the Salvation Army. She applied for food stamps.

When her lease was up, she decided to move back with her family on the Navajo reservation.

“It was a blessing,” she said. “My father cooked for me. My brother helped me to sit outside. They took the stress off me.”

During that time, she had surgery, got injections and did physical therapy to learn to walk again. It was endless medical appointments and mountains of paperwork.

“You really learn the health care system when you get a bill that says, ‘You owe us $15,000,’” she said.

There were many tears, and she tried to cry softly in her room so her family wouldn’t hear her.

Antonio knew she needed to finish college, but she wanted to wait until she was back to 100%. But when she attended a pain-management support group, she met a woman who had such severe migraines that she couldn’t work. But the woman did take classes.

“She told me that if all you do is go to doctor appointments, you’ll drive yourself crazy and you have to have a goal,” she said.

Antonio also found encouragement from the Arizona Spinal Cord Injury Association.

“I met other people that had spinal cord injuries,” she said. “Most were paraplegics or quadriplegics and they were working 8 to 5 Monday through Friday. It really opened up my eyes.”

So she decided to move her life back to Tempe. It was struggle to find an apartment she could afford through Section 8 and to get everything she needed. She still had mobility issues.

In fall 2017, she resumed classes part time, working steadily toward graduation with help from the Disability Resource Center at ASU.

At the beginning of this semester, everything seemed to be on track. Antonio was looking into graduate school to become a registered dietician and asking professors for reference letters.

Then in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic grew into a crisis, the university announced that all classes would go online.

Just as the end was in sight, Antonio faced another obstacle.

“I’ve never owned a laptop. I’ve done all 15 years of my academics with the computers in ASU’s libraries -- every assignment and every paper,” she said.

Antonio had been working with a counselor in the state Department of Economic Security’s vocational rehabilitation department. She had requested funding for a laptop years ago and was denied. But as classes shifted to an online format, she tried again and received a laptop over spring break.

Getting internet installed into her apartment took another week, so she worked at Starbucks or in parking lots on campus to get a Wi-Fi signal.

“I didn’t show myself on Zoom because I was sitting in my car,” she said.

She has also been worrying about her mother, who works in health care on the reservation.

“I was crying over the phone with her and I was afraid for her and she told me, ‘I’m sorry this is making you scared but I’m here to help my people,’” Antonio said.

“She told me, ‘If you’re going into the health field, you need to know this.’”

As graduation approached, Antonio registered for five ceremonies: the main undergraduate commencement and the convocations for the W. P. School of Business, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the College of Health Solutions and the American Indian Convocation.

She was excited to not just walk across five stages but also to just literally walk.

“I’m very disappointed. I waited 15 years and it’s not just the three degrees but also the other accomplishments,” she said. “I used to walk with two canes and now I walk with one.

“And I wanted to have my family there.”

But she’s looking forward to the future.

“I want to work on my reservation to give something back to the people in my community,” she said.

Antonio answered a few questions from ASU Now:

Question: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

Answer: I would tell them to not give up, and they need to ask for help. If it’s a professor problem, ask a professor. If it’s student support, know your resources on campus and take advantage of them. Know that you can finish your goal and find resources out there. For me, it was vocational rehabilitation, Section 8 housing and Social Security. Without those I wouldn’t have been able to focus. The Disability Resource Center was amazing.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot was the Labriola National American Indian Data Center. It made me feel like I had a community at ASU and provided me with knowledge. Native American history in the public education system has been swept under the rug. But at the Labriola center I could have that history in my hands, which is rare to find. Finding that shared support and culture was amazing.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I want to become a registered dietitian and work on my reservation, but before I do that I’d like to work at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center to get the skills I need.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would protect the health care workers and I say that right now because my mom works in the health care field and doesn’t have the proper medical supplies, like masks or gloves. This is one of those things that shows the humanity in everybody.

Top image: Jessica Antonio, who is Navajo, is graduating with three degrees, in business, American Indian Studies and nutrition. She is holding some gifts from her family, including a maroon and gold wool blanket. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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