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Anthropology graduate to pursue law degree, continue public service for Indigenous communities


Manuel Lewis

Anthropology major Manuel Lewis is a first-generation college student and a full-time emergency telephone operator for the Gila River Indian Community police and fire departments. “Most people think that the common experience uniting first-generation students is being the first, but, if you ask me, it’s our commitment to ensuring we’re not the last. I hope that I’ve been able to show my cousins, niece and nephews how much they’re capable of achieving and that no path is unobtainable,” he said. Photo by Meghan Finnerty

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December 11, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

Born and raised in Arizona, Manuel Lewis found a home for higher education at Arizona State University. Lewis is a fall 2023 Dean’s Medalist and the first-generation college student is graduating with a degree in anthropology from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. 

“When I was applying to colleges, I thought I wanted to be as far away from Arizona as possible,” said Lewis. “But by the time I was applying as a transfer student, I had begun my career and realized how important it was to continue a career in public service while I continued my studies.”

Lewis is a full-time emergency telephone operator for the Gila River Indian Community police and fire departments. As a descendant of this community, Lewis plans to apply for law school and continue to do work in the public service arena for Indigenous communities. 

“Most people think that the common experience uniting first-generation students is being the first, but, if you ask me, it’s our commitment to ensuring we’re not the last. I hope that I’ve been able to show my cousins, niece and nephews how much they’re capable of achieving and that no path is unobtainable,” he said.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

Question: How has your journey been as a first-generation student, and how have you accomplished your goals while working full time?

Answer: I am actually in a strange place as a first-generation student because my father just graduated about six months ago from Northern Arizona University. We had been attending university concurrently for about two or three semesters when he graduated.

The journey as a first-generation is a little different for everyone. For me, it meant that I navigated my initial college admissions and transfer admissions by myself, which proved to be a bit of a challenge. Although no one in my family had ever received a higher education degree, they’ve all been very supportive and understanding of my efforts toward my education in the ways that they could.

I’ve never really viewed my job as a barrier to my education. Of course, working more than 40 hours each week cut into my study time and limited my scheduling abilities, but it was my work for my family’s tribe, the Gila River Indian Community, that solidified for me that I wanted to pursue a career in public service and identified the legal profession as a way that I would be able to help tribes and tribal people in this pursuit.

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

A: I never would’ve imagined growing up I’d pursue a degree in anything other than a “hard” science or mathematics. Math was always my favorite, and best, subject in school. But more than anything else, I have always had a curious mind and loved challenging myself. I’m not sure that I can pinpoint a single moment, but when I learned how many fields of knowledge anthropologists drew from — the hard sciences, social sciences, liberal arts and more — I knew it would be something that would continually challenge me to view things from as many vantage points as possible, and I knew it would be a rewarding field of study as I prepared to pursue a legal education and career.

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

A: It is no secret that anthropology, especially archaeology, has a tumultuous history with Indigenous people. The idea of archaeology is that one is studying past cultures and past people, but the truth is that those cultures and people are as alive and diverse today as they ever have been. I learned through my internship at the Center for Archaeology and Society Repository (CASR), and in my archaeological field practicum, that the two need not be so dichotomous. I was able to speak and work with Indigenous archaeologists who brought their understanding and knowledge with them into the work we were all doing. It was a collaborative and engaging environment, and it taught me to expand upon my preconceived notions and the limitations I’ve placed on the work that can be done.

During the internship I spent a summer inventorying legacy archaeological collections, working with graduate students and staff, and learning about the process of repatriation back to local tribal communities. It was a formative experience that gave me an outlet to understand archaeology in a professional context and work with amazing people.

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

A: Alissa Ruth has been both a professor and mentor to me throughout my final years as an undergraduate student. She’s made herself available to help me understand graduate school admissions, served as a recommender for me in my law school applications, and given me space to reflect on my personal experiences and how they contribute to my present and my future. She has taught me countless lessons that I know will serve me well as I take my next steps into graduate studies and a new career. 

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