Zah’s education efforts earn MLK award
Some people are cut out to serve others through their leadership, says Peterson Zah, ASU’s 2008 Martin Luther King Jr. Servant-Leadership Award winner. They don’t feel they’re doing anything special. They just see a need and step in to fill it.
“Sometimes I think it’s not fair to get paid for what I do,” says the former Navajo Nation president, who has been a key leader in bringing Native American students from tribal communities to ASU and helping them succeed. “I really love it.”
Zah, an adviser to the ASU president for 13 years, will receive the award at an MLK celebration breakfast at 7 a.m., Jan. 28, at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel, 60 E. Fifth St. He was chosen for his service to Native American people, to ASU students and faculty, and to the broader community.
What Zah does is considerable, traveling up to 1,000 miles a month to tribal communities to talk to students and families about college, and to work with leaders on developing partnerships with ASU. He frequently speaks to national and local groups about tribal issues, gives presentations to ASU classes, and meets with students in his office who are having financial or personal problems.
Zah has helped double the Native American student population at ASU, and he continues to build key alliances with tribal and community groups. He helped create ASU’s Native American Achievement Program, a partnership with tribes to provide scholarships, mentoring and advising to students.
This year, ASU has 1,370 Native American students enrolled, up from 698 14 years ago. While last year’s enrollment was even higher, more Native American students than ever are graduating from ASU. The graduating class in December was the largest fall class ever, at 93, with eight of these receiving master’s degrees and two earning doctorates. Another 223 students graduated in the 2006-2007 academic year, a record.
ASU faculty, staff and students across the university reach out to Native American schools throughout the state, bringing enrichment programs on math and science, reading and art to elementary and middle schools. They travel to Indian communities from the Gila River and Salt River Pima-Maricopa to the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache.
Zah has a key role when financial aid and admissions counselors go to the tribal high schools. In February, he and other ASU staff will spend a week in the Navajo Nation, talking to students during the day and their parents and families at night. Zah will be interviewed by Navajo newspapers and radio stations, and he will give guest lectures to high school classes in Navajo government, culture and language. He also will contact low-income families to explain the ASU Advantage program to them, working with the Arizona Department of Economic Security to find students who might qualify for assistance to cover their full college costs.
Later in the spring, he’ll start his annual graduation tour, giving graduation speeches at high school commencements in tribal communities throughout Arizona and New Mexico.
In recent months, he’s also addressed the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, the National Education Association and the Navajo Housing Authority.
“He really connects with the parents and grandparents in tribal communities,” says Jaynie Parrish, coordinator of American Indian Initiatives and a graduate of the Native American Achievement Program. “But he also is known to the young people. Last spring at Shiprock High School (in New Mexico), we were so welcomed and embraced, we felt at home. Later, we found out that the high school was using a national ‘Character Counts’ calendar that featured Mr. Zah as an outstanding example. The gym was packed with students who wanted to hear him speak.”
Zah also has raised funds for American Indian programs at ASU, helping to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Department of Interior and the Navajo Nation to support students in the Indian Legal Program. He has helped increase quality construction and development for tribes through the Construction in Indian Country program in the Del E. Webb School of Construction.
Zah has gained the trust of Native American people by defending their interests for more than 40 years. Born on the Navajo reservation in 1937, he left his home and family as a teenager to attend the Phoenix Indian School. He later attended ASU, where he graduated in 1963. He returned to his homeland as a vocational educator, teaching Navajo adults the essentials of the carpentry trade.
Within a few years, he became executive director of DNA-People’s Legal Services, a nonprofit legal services program for the Navajo, Hopi and Apache people. He helped them with legal matters, set up widespread community education programs and championed native consumer rights. He was elected chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council in 1982. He became president of the Navajo Nation in 1990.
Throughout his career, Zah has made education his first priority. He’ll do whatever it takes to help motivated students stay in school – counseling them, calling a professor or staff member, or dipping into emergency funds provided by companies or private individuals who want to help.
“Our success doesn’t stop at enrolling students, or graduating them,” Zah says. “Success is helping the schools prepare them for college, working with families, supporting traditional values and developing scholarship programs so they can succeed. Success is when they go back to their people and become contributing members, working to improve American Indian communities.”