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Native American student gives back to her community

October 01, 2008

(Part 1 in a 3-part series): Students entering programs at Arizona State University increasingly expect research experience early in their undergraduate studies. Seeking more profound and hands-on learning in their field, they want to graduate with some depth of experience that can only be gained through research. Barrett, The Honors College at ASU, has used these research opportunities as a recruitment tool to attract bright young minds. But as more and more graduate programs and employment opportunities require undergraduate research, disciplines across the university have seen the value the experience offers students. The result is a richly rewarding academic experience, for both students and their mentors.

Raised in the city of Winslow, Sharon Cini’s footprints traced the land of her ancestors on both the nearby Hopi and Navajo reservations in Northern Arizona. Born to the Tséníjíkiní Clan (Cliff Dwellers) on her Navajo mother’s side, she carries this maternal affiliation, as will her children. She is born for her paternal clan, the Hopi Fire Clan.

During the Persian Gulf War, Cini served as a propulsion engineer for the United States Navy on a submarine tender, the USS Frank Cable. She currently works as a youth and family counselor at Arizona Children’s Association Gila River program, and is a single mother of 10-year-old daughter, Nakota.

Cini is also an Arizona State University senior majoring in American Indian Studies. Her emphases are legal policy and community development. She is a Udall Scholar who hopes to attend law school after graduation in the fall of 2008.

When she speaks of her early years in Winslow, Cini is quick to remark that she was never far in heart and mind from her family and culture on the reservations.

“Winslow is an interesting town—it has a very multi-ethnic background,” she says. “When I was in high school, 50 percent of the students were native, either Hopi or Navajo.”

Her mother and father met at the Phoenix Indian Boarding School and married young. Her father spent time in Vietnam and the war affected him in ways that she could not understand at the time. Cini was only three when her parents’ divorced. But family ties are strong in the Navajo and Hopi communities. She has done her best to abide by the cultural rituals, beliefs, and ceremonies that define her life.

Cini learned early that she would rely on the women in her family for support. She lived with her mother who had gone to nursing school in South Dakota and was a nurse with Winslow Indian Health Services.

“All the women in my families, my aunts, my grandmothers, they took care of us. They relied on each other. Today, that’s how my sister and I are—we’re very close, our families are very close like that—our first cousins, we call brothers and sisters.”

When Cini graduated from Winslow High School at age 17, her mother had to sign for her to join the Navy.

“She knew there was nothing in Winslow for me. I think she knew deep down how much strength I had inside of me,” she says.

Knowing she might see combat, her family prepared for her departure by inviting a Navajo medicine man to perform a protection ceremony.

“Since I didn’t know who or what I was going to encounter, the ceremony was a really important foundation for me to stay connected to my mother and our people, and also for me spiritually,” Cini adds.

Once intimidated by the demands and social pressures of a university, Cini entered the American Indian Studies Program at ASU in 2006. She has thrived in the academic environment.

“Once Sharon found her bearings on campus, she seized every learning opportunity afforded her and it has been amazing to see her blossom,” says Michelle Hale, a professor in the American Indian Studies Program. “She is genuine and kind and possesses an infectious personality that makes her easy to get along with and a joy to have as student and colleague.”

In summer 2007, Cini was selected as an intern for the Morris K. Udall Native American Congressional Internship Program. She worked with the Senate committee on Indian affairs.

“We worked on research regarding Indian health care, urban Indian programs, law enforcement and sexual assault in Indian country.”

Cini has worked with the Native American Community Health Center in Phoenix, enhancing community outreach while working at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “I know how important that center is and these services are for the thousands of Native Americans living off the reservation.”

When Cini graduates in December 2008, she will pursue simultaneous law and health administration degrees. She intends to return to the reservation with her daughter and build their home on land in Ganado. She wants to make a difference in the community that still nurtures her from afar.

“It’s how the Creator is planning out my life. I know there is something I can contribute to the people,” she insists. “It’s in my path, to go back to the people. I feel blessed to have a clear picture of possibilities for me on a personal level and as a member of the Navajo Nation.”

Sheilah Britton,
(480) 965-0413