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Navajo student finds success through involvement at ASU

Diedra Vasquez
July 31, 2013

Transitioning from living in a small reservation town to a university environment can be difficult for some American Indian students.

Diedra Vasquez (Navajo and Tohono O’odham) grew up in the town of Chinle (population: 4,518) on the Navajo Reservation. She remembers feeling homesick frequently during her first year at ASU, after moving away from family and friends.

“A lot of students struggle with coming from the reservation and small towns,” she said. 

Driving home almost every weekend during her first year helped allay her feelings of homesickness, but she now advises students to become involved in activities instead.

“My advice is just to get out there and get involved, in classes and in university activities like student organizations. That’s the thing that really helped me deal with homesickness, friends here and organizations that I joined,” Vasquez said. “Find out about American Indian Student Support Services and start getting involved. When I came here, I was so quiet. I got to know more people and broke out of my shell.”

Joining Nations (Native Americans Taking Initiative on Success) provided Vasquez an opportunity to be part of an organization that offered academic workshops, motivational speakers and social events where she met many people.

“We were there for each other, kind of like a little family,” she said. After serving on the organization’s executive board, she moved up to vice president, and eventually president of the organization.

Working a part-time job with the American Indian Initiatives office at ASU as a student liaison has provided her with many opportunities, such as being able to participate in the Tribal Nations Tour, where ASU students and employees travel to the far reaches of the state to encourage American Indian students to go to college.

“I tell young people my story and give them advice,” she said. “We’ve gone to all of the tribes in Arizona except for two.”

That includes hiking eight miles down to the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon as part of the tour to talk to young people there about college.

“We also go to college fairs and talk to families. It’s not just recruiters who are going out, but actual students who share their stories and tell the students, ‘if I can do it, you can do it,’” Vasquez said.

Some families then come to the university to tour campus and learn more about ASU. Vasquez recently spent two hours with an American Indian family, telling them about the university and showing them around.  

Vasquez is planning to return to her community after she graduates from ASU in December with a degree in American Indian Studies from ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She hopes to start a program that encourages younger children to seek higher education.

“I took one American Indian Studies course and thought, ‘I could do something with this back home,’” she said. “My main goal is to go back to my community and work in education by setting up programs to prepare students for college. We didn’t know what college was until probably our junior or senior year when everyone started to talk about it.”

Changes that she would like to see in her community are making college classes more accessible to students on the reservation and enhancing curriculum to reflect more of a college preparatory experience.

An American Indian Studies professional seminar class that she took provided hands-on experience in addressing educational issues in Indian Country. Vasquez’s group focused on designing a college preparatory school, complete with a sketch of the school, policies and discussion of issues, such as working with the community to approve the school.

“We have to think about the issues in real-life situations,” Vasquez said. “I was really excited for the school in the future. That’s the ultimate dream for our group – to set up a preparatory school on our reservation.”