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Degrees Help Sisters Give Back to Their Community


April 27, 2005

MESA, Ariz. — Arizona State University will confer bachelor's and master's degrees on approximately 5,800 students in May, which is not unusual, but three of the estimated 150 Native American students graduating happen to be sisters.

Dorthea, Benita and Elvira Litson plan to graduate from various programs offered on the Tempe and Polytechnic campuses.

Michael Begaye, program coordinator senior for the Native American Achievement Program (NAAP) at the Tempe campus, is proud that one Native American family has multiple members graduating simultaneously. "I have been here nine years, and I have never witnessed anything like it," says Begaye. "It's quite fitting as Peterson Zah is being recognized with an honorary doctorate degree." Begaye adds that Benita and Elvira are participants of the NAAP and Dorthea served as an advisor/mentor for NAAP participants at ASU's East campus.

Dorthea, the oldest of the three, is graduating with her master of education degree in education, curriculum and instruction from the College of Education in Tempe. Benita, the middle sister, is graduating with a master of science degree in environmental resource management from the Department of Applied Biological Sciences in School of Applied Arts & Sciences at the Polytechnic campus. And Elvira, the youngest of the three, is graduating with a bachelor of science degree in agribusiness from the Morrison School of Management and Agribusiness at the Polytechnic campus.

Education is important to all of them because they see it as a way to give back to the people on the Navajo Reservation in Tsaile, Ariz., where they grew up. For their family and for others on the reservation, agriculture is very much a part of their culture and life.

"My father made a business off of raising, trading and selling livestock," says Benita. "Livestock gave us the ability to enjoy our lives, and I guess I grew to love and respect animals."

As an undergraduate, Benita focused on pre-veterinary medicine, but took a few environmental resource management courses to fulfill some of her upper- division requirements.

"Taking the environmental resource management courses made me see that in order to help my family's business in ranching, we had to make optimal use of the land without further degradation, so I switched my focus and pursued my master's degree in it," says Benita.

For Elvira, getting her degree aids in her interest to improve the way of life for her people who depend heavily on their livestock and crops for survival.

"Growing up on a reservation is indescribable, especially when you come to the city and realize our people on the reservation are being left behind," says Elvira. "It gives you a sense of wanting to go back to help change so many things. Getting an education is the biggest step to being able to do just that; it was my motivation for finishing my degree."

Dorthea, the first of five children to receive a college degree, sees her education helping the youth and teachers on the reservation. "Based on my own education and experience, I concluded that Indian students continue to perform at a very low continuum in terms of education performance," says Dorthea. "This huge learning gap for my Indian youth is what motivated me to pursue my master of education degree."

Dorthea has worked for ASU's Polytechnic campus for six years in areas of American Indian student retention and recruitment and more recently on a National Science Foundation grant that works with rural schools – schools on Indian reservations and schools serving Hispanic and Indian students – on sustaining and improving mathematics and science learning for all students.

"I would like to help teachers examine their instructions in the area of mathematics and science so they can improve student learning," says Dorthea.

The sisters' family and friends plan to celebrate their accomplishments following the various graduation ceremonies, including the university commencement ceremony at 10 a.m. and the Polytechnic campus convocation ceremony at 6:30 p.m., both on May 12 at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe; the College of Education ceremony at 2 p.m., May 13, at Wells Fargo Arena; and the Native American Convocation at 10 a.m., May 14, at Grady Gammage Auditorium.