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Dean's Medalist embraces heritage language through poetry

Headshot of ASU student Chris Hoshnic in an outdoor setting.

Graduating ASU English major Chris Hoshnic is The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean's Medalist in English for spring 2024. Photo credit Meghan Finnerty/ASU

April 15, 2024

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

When he first enrolled at Arizona State University, Chris Hoshnic thought he’d found a shortcut to the Bachelor of Arts second language proficiency requirement.

Hoshnic, who is from Sweetwater, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, is a heritage speaker of Diné Bizaad — the Navajo language. ASU accepts Diné Bizaad as one of more than 20 languages in which students can demonstrate proficiency via an exam.

But things didn’t go according to plan.

First, no one had updated the Diné Bizaad proficiency test in decades. “It was dated 1985, I believe,” Hoshnic said wryly.

Then, Hoshnic found that he had overestimated his own facility with the language — especially the version of the language that appeared on the 1980s-era exam. “I excelled at the listening and oral portion but felt like an alien to my own language during the written portion,” he admitted.

This was a turning point for Hoshnic, who used his disappointment to spur him to action. He enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts in English program through ASU Online, sought mentors he admired, studied French, and discovered a new way to approach language: through poetry.

Hoshnic, who also holds an associate’s degree in video production from Glendale Community College, is graduating from ASU with his bachelor’s degree this spring. He is committed to helping others learn or re-learn their own heritage languages and to embracing his culture and community.

For his community engagement and academic achievements, Hoshnic is The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Medalist in English for spring 2024. He has earned several additional honors for his language work, including the 2023 Hayden’s Ferry Review Indigenous Poetry Prize and the 2023 UC Berkeley ARC Poetry and the Senses Undergraduate Fellowship.

We sat down with Hoshnic to ask a few questions about his language philosophy and his plans post graduation.

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

Answer: Moving into the academic space, I believed I would end up in law school or work in marketing after I graduated. I also initially believed I understood my heritage language, Diné Bizaad, in its entirety — that there was no need for further education on my part for my language. When I found out Diné Bizaad was an option for my “second language” for my degree requirements, I figured I just saved myself time and money.

Luckily, I “failed” the test and had to take up French. The process of learning French has re-calibrated my brain to examine how I’m learning and how the same practices must be applied to Diné Bizaad. This was something I wanted to emphasize, change and challenge as our language is far more complex than most. Thus, the approach must be different. I discovered, through a conversation with (Regents Professor of English) Alberto Ríos, that the way to do this was through the power of poetry — and so I did that!

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

A: My time with (Assistant Professor of English) Tyler Peterson and (Professor of English) Natalie Diaz challenged the way I think about language. The opportunities I had with each of them were because I proactively sought out them both. I knew they were each respected in the world of linguistics and language, and I made it a mission for myself to either have a class with one of them or be mentored by them.

I got an opportunity to be mentored by Natalie for a short time during a fellowship program and it largely influenced my thoughts about tackling a senior thesis on translation with Tyler Peterson. It was like turning languages inside out to see what was inside and watching the mechanics work. I am more aware of how people speak — their rhythm and cadences. Listening to people speak is like listening to each person’s own authentic music that I can practice in my own writing as a poet.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I would be lying if I didn’t say location.

I’ve lived in Phoenix for all of my adult life and didn’t see myself moving elsewhere for some time. I wanted to study English because I was a screenwriter first. When I was getting rejection after rejection, I felt it had something to do with my writing. I figured if I study English, I can use its practices towards law and marketing as well as my own writing. At the time, I did not see myself returning to film for a while until I was financially stable.

Now that my time is over at ASU, I feel more prepared and ready to return to the medium — this time, through the lens of poetry. I found there’s a lot there that screenwriters can also use within the craft of poetry.

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

A: I credit two people who weren’t professors but great mentors: (Instructional Professional) Ruby Macksoud, who directs English’s internship program, and (Clinical Assistant Professor) Jacqueline Balderrama, who directs the Thousand Languages Project.

Ruby has taught me a lot about the academic space and its capabilities of changing the world. She helped me chase my curiosity, no matter how much it has changed. I try to have this kind of influence in any space I enter.

Jacqueline Balderrama planted the seed for poetry. I’m not sure if she’s aware, but she mentored me through a piece I submitted to Hayden’s Ferry Review for the Indigenous Poetry Prize. Even though our relationship has been largely virtual, I credit her for opening the door to the world of poetry as a possibility to explore creativity, philosophy and my own relationship to Diné Bizaad.

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

A: Think “in relation.”

Natalie Diaz always referred to others outside herself this way. Instead of asking what does this mean for me, I now ask myself what is this in relation to me.

This places the object or situation alongside myself as opposed to behind, before me or above me. It helps to reframe hierarchy and re-establish your relationship to things you cannot control towards things you can.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: My favorite spot for studying has to be on my phone while I’m taking a walk. I don’t get the opportunity to sit in a classroom or have constant contact with others who are studying. I don’t think I would have liked that anyway, as I like to move around a lot.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m going to attend Institute of American Indian Arts for an MFA in Poetry, but I’m still not counting law school out.

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

A: I think it was Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” that said something about money being the “end and aim” of their existence. Another character in that scene said something in response to Jo, who I think said the thing about money, about her being the only person who would get ink stains because of her desire for money.

I think the word “desire” is a reflection of the state of the planet now. I think to have $40 million to solve one problem will only create more “desires” out of it.

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