Grad charted own course to social work, public affairs

Portrait of Ty'Lesha Yellowhair, ASU fall 2022 outstanding graduate for the School of Public Affairs.

Ty'Lesha Yellowhair (Navajo, or Diné), fall 2022 Outstanding Graduate in the School of Public Affairs, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. Photo courtesy Ty'Lesha Yellowhair


Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

As the youngest of five children, Ty’Lesha Yellowhair (Navajo, or Diné) had more than enough incentive to pursue her education. Not that there weren’t challenges to overcome for it to happen.

Following the example of their mother — who holds three master’s degrees — all four of Yellowhair’s siblings also earned degrees.

“It’s been incredible to witness the strides they have all taken, for me to live up to the examples of my siblings and my mother,” said Yellowhair, the fall 2022 Outstanding Graduate from Arizona State University's School of Public Affairs.

Today a Chandler, Arizona, resident, Yellowhair is of the Diné nation, originally from Kayenta, Arizona. She is Todích’íinii (Bitter Water Clan) born for Tł’ááshchí’I (Red Bottom People Clan). Her maternal grandfather’s clan is Naakai Dine’é, and her paternal grandfather’s clan is Tó’áhaní (Near the Water Clan).

After graduating from Monument Valley High School in 2011, she enrolled at ASU in American Indian studies, but changed her major to early childhood education after realizing she wanted to make an impact in her community in a different way. But after making that change, she realized that she had a different calling.

“I developed a passion for social work and public affairs. It was something I just had to do,” she said. She left school for a few years after the birth of her son, but returned in 2015 to earn her bachelor’s degree in American Indian studies with a certificate in Native leadership and governance. At its fall 2022 commencement, the university is conferring upon her a Master of Public Administration and a Master of Social Work.

Yellowhair’s decision to go into social work, particularly into efforts to shape public policies that guide social services, set her apart from her mother and siblings.

“My sisters contribute to our community by molding the minds of our children as teachers. My mom, it’s been 50 years; she assumed that I would fall into that too,” Yellowhair said. “But I will be the first social worker and first public administrator in my family, working with policy and how systems operate. For me, that’s an incredible accomplishment.”

Yellowhair says she hopes to bring knowledge of connectivity and infrastructure to tribal members.

“There is a pattern of inequity, and I’d like to do my best to make a difference to bring back equity, if not justice, to our communities,” she said. “I’d also like to help victims of violence.”

Read on to learn more about Yellowhair’s ASU journey.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: Advocacy is the center of my being. I never had to learn what social injustice was from a textbook. Growing up Diné and living on the Navajo Nation, I saw the manifestations of unfairness daily. I remember traveling 100 miles to the nearest “boarding town” to get groceries, clothes and other necessities. I remember seeing all the green grass, huge water fountains, clean and pretty parks and large company stores inside those towns — I was so overwhelmed by the number of options.

I remember being in elementary school and asking my mom and teachers why some communities had more than us. No one wanted to answer my question, and so that is when I began my search for those answers. That question has led me to many places, meet different people and learn new things. 

It was in 2019 when I had a major turning point in my life. I worked with the town of Gilbert as their Native American management intern, and this is where I found my calling to public service. I had the opportunity to work on a project where I researched and assisted in developing a new data collection method for their family violence unit. Hundreds of Gilbert residents were able to benefit from this application. This was the first time I realized how public servants could make a difference. Community workers were, and are, an extension of the government. To best serve my community and my people, I needed to understand the historical and systemic impact our profession can have on all populations, especially Indigenous communities. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: The systems around us directly affect the overall health of families in the present, past and future. That is why I think it is especially important for policy developers and public administrators to understand how language within policies can impact entire generations. There is power in language and framing — this is something I learned in my public policy analysis course. I found this exceptionally useful when understanding how policies will affect Native communities and people. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I am the youngest of five children. Because of that, I found that my path was already outlined by my siblings, who had taken the journey before me. My siblings earned a graduate degree long before I graduated from high school, so I had the opportunity to witness their performance in higher education and see how that made a difference for our community. 

For our family, graduating from ASU is like a tradition. Both my sisters are alumni of ASU, so most of my childhood memories include walking the campus at ASU, sitting in the library and attending graduation ceremonies.

I cannot explain it, but every time I stepped foot on campus, it seemed like a familiar place. What solidified this feeling was meeting the staff and professors in each of my programs. I needed to find somewhere that was a second home for me, and each time I considered a program, I was welcomed by an Indigenous scholar who worked for the school. I saw the direct result of Natives in higher education by seeing Indigenous professionals in academia, which meant everything to me. Building connections and maintaining those connections matter to me. Indigenous success at ASU is why I decided to become a three-time graduating Sun Devil. Representation matters.

Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I am most grateful to Professor Christopher Sharp, who recruited me. There are many moments in my life where I felt I was standing at a crossroads, wondering which direction to take and if it would be the “right” choice. I am very grateful for the support and mentorship Chris provided to me during both of my degrees. Chris, thank you endlessly for willingly giving me your time and effort. I promise to always strive to be the greatest I can be. Your dedication to guiding me has never gone unnoticed or unappreciated.

I had the opportunity to take my capstone project with David Swindell in spring 2022. I appreciated the conscious effort in assigning articles and capstone projects. There was an encouragement of debate and critical analysis in each assignment, which I needed more of. 

Q: Is there a particular person who supported you in a significant way?

A: I would like to share my appreciation for my husband, Preston. Throughout my educational journey, he has supported me in every capacity. It was not easy, but he filled in where I couldn’t. I am forever grateful for that. 

I also would like to mention my dad, Thomas J. Yellowhair. When he unexpectedly passed in 2016, I was heartbroken. Since birth, he and my mother have made us a priority and paved the way for us to be successful. There are many years of prayers and songs that he said on my behalf. Without his support and love, I wouldn’t have the confidence, strength and work ethic I have now. Thank you, Dad. I miss you. 

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

A: Those who decide to attend school usually do so to make a difference. Whether that change is for you or society, there is this desire to learn as much as possible and do everything to ensure you build yourself to be the best version of yourself. It is quite a journey for anyone to take. Many people only want to hear about the awards and accomplishments, but my time in school was measured differently. 

My path had more challenges than it did triumphs. Every moment I was at school, doing an assignment or networking, I placed my family and self-care secondary. With each passing semester, I found it hard to prioritize taking care of myself. Student life shouldn’t be like that.

If I were to pass any advice to those still in school, it would be to put yourself first. Yes, accomplishing your goals is super important and part of your purpose, but so is your health. Nurturing your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual being is a great way to build resilience in yourself. How we care for ourselves impacts our quality of life, our relationships with others and how much energy we have to give to the world. As the saying goes, we cannot pour from an empty cup. I wish I had prioritized this more during my time as a student. 

Q:  If you are an on-campus student, what was your favorite spot to study, meet friends or to just think about life?

A: As a mother of two, a wife and a working student, there was only a little time to travel to campus. In those rare moments when I could study on campus, I found myself most productive when I would go to the private rooms in the library. Finding a moment of silence is rare in my home, so I did appreciate having somewhere to go and focus solely on reading or writing. Additionally, I enjoyed going to the American Indian Student Support Services (AISSS) study room. I am a person who thrives in groups, and when peers surround me, I find brainstorming and getting started on an assignment to be easier. Plus, there was the bonus of free printing and snacks.

I owe much of my academic success to the community I found at ASU. Peer support is everything to me. When I joined the American Indian Social Work Student Association (AISWSA), I was able to make lifetime connections with people who prioritized and valued social justice and change for the better. Finding a safe space is hard in any context, especially for a Native student like me who is miles away from home. I am thankful for the support and connections I had. I am so thankful for the spaces Indigenous programs are working to provide. I wouldn’t have made it to this point without them.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My graduate studies led me to study violence in Indigenous communities, where I developed an interest in victim support and program development. Because of my internships with the Office of American Indian Projects, AmeriCorps Survivor Link and the Gilbert Police Department, I am now committed to supporting Native communities across the Southwest.

When I first entered this program, I had this vision to develop a nonprofit that would serve victims and survivors of violence, specifically Diné women and children. This is still my vision, but I have grown to know that many educated, experienced and hardworking advocates are already doing the work.

Advocacy is the center of my being. I have made it my mission to continue creating culturally safe spaces for Indigenous people to heal — especially for Native women and children. Overall, I am driven by the desire to eliminate violence against women and children across Native America. With my graduate degrees, I plan to utilize my capability in policy development and program planning to support behavioral health programs within Native communities. It is rare for a Native person to graduate with a post-secondary degree, particularly a Native female; therefore, I plan to follow a path that allows me to give back to the community that has built me.

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

A: There is an unconscionable gap in funding and resources for victims of violence on the Navajo Nation. Awareness, education and services for victims of violence are very limited, leaving women to experience repeated cycles of victimization.

For every woman who identifies as American Indian or Alaska Native, four out of every five women are bound to experience some type of violence in their lifetime (intimate partner violence, or IPV), according to A.B. Rosay in “Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men,” published in 2016 in the National Institute of Justice Journal.

The psychological and physical repercussions of physical violence have left Indigenous women concerned for their safety, permanently injured, in need of services and financially dependent on their perpetrators, according to 2002 data researched by T. Peacock, et al., for the American Psychological Association titled “Community-Based Analysis of the U.S. Legal System’s Intervention in Domestic Abuse Cases Involving Indigenous Women.” It was reported that 92.6% of women who were evaluated spoke about what the perpetrators did, but because of jurisdictional limitations on the reservation, no harsh repercussions were demonstrated, according to S. Deer in “The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America,” published in 2015 by the University of Minnesota Press. With the granted money, there is an opportunity to fund efforts focused on eliminating domestic violence and providing support to victims of violence.

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