Michael’s dream, REPRESENT, is to make higher education more accessible to Indigenous peoples. His program will include financial awards to cover the costs of testing and application fees, along with resources to help them with the preparation for standardized testing, college applications and answer their questions about higher education.
“My dream is to create a summer program, partnered with local high schools in the Navajo Nation, that teaches students the value of higher education and how to get there, but more importantly, the value that indigenous cultures and traditional knowledge can bring to these institutions,” says Michael.
Michael, 23, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and a PhD candidate at Ohio State University, learned about the Dreamstarter® program through the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). As an undergrad at Cornell
University, he served as AISES student representative and chapter president as well as working on multiple research projects in biomedical and chemical engineering. AISES, a national organization with members across the U.S. and Canada and located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is also his mentor organization.
Growing up mostly off the reservation, it was the home of his grandmother, who passed away in 2017, and many other members of his extended family.
“Back on the reservation, it is a rural desert and a very spread out area – the best place to look at stars and observe the beauty of the canyons that we live among,” said Michael, who last visited the reservation in June 2017, adding that his experience on the reservation and connection to the land has always been based around his grandmother.
“As our matriarch, she instilled the value of family into our gigantic extended family, and family is the reason that Dinétah (Among the Navajo) means so much to me.”
What motivated Michael to develop this dream?
As a PhD candidate, he spent a lot of “time, effort and frustration navigating the colonial higher education system” and as he continues to work through his dissertation research, he has learned that engineering and other sciences “lack the holistic thinking that indigenous knowledge has developed over generations of refined thinking.”
The idea for his dissertation stemmed from his constant exploration of bridging the “two worlds” of his education and culture. He realized that the shortcomings of engineering that are being experienced through issues such as climate change can be countered by finding ways to include traditional indigenous knowledge into academic research and design.
He also knew that the only reason he was able to pursue his PhD and afford the testing and application process was through the scholarships and awards he had received through various organizations such as AISES.
“However, these funding opportunities are much rarer for high schools are they try to navigate college applications,” Michael said. “Without these opportunities higher education can become inaccessible.”
The Dream as a Solution
Michael’s dream is to bring the same support that he experienced through his academic career to the local communities on his reservation.
“I know that the learning will be a two-way street as even though I will bring my experience in academia, I will spend even more time learning about my culture and the lives of my relatives on the reservation,” he said.
To make it as accessible as possible, Michael will host events at three high schools across the Navajo Nation, spending a week in each area to spend time with members of the community. In budgeting for his $10,000 Dreamstarter® grant, he says he wants to use half for the financial needs of the participants and half toward the operation of the summer events.
“I hope this program inspires them to continuously challenge the way concepts are approached in education and to become the best student and researcher through the way they bring their culture to the table.”
The Potential Impact in the Future
“Together, we can increase our alarmingly low graduation rates, and show students that they belong at their institutions because our world needs more indigenous scientists, writers, doctors, lawyers and teachers,” he says. “The main focus will be on the value of indigenous cultures in academia that leads to unique perspectives, new solutions, and a stronger Native community.”