During my first week of college one student asked me, “you’re Native? I thought we killed all the Natives.” I took a deep breath, kindly told him he was wrong, and walked away. I wanted nothing more in that moment than to be around Native people, to talk about the many awkward situations I faced with someone who understood me. I was alone, and for four years this has been my reality.
I have always loved Duke. I grew up two thousand miles away from campus in a rural community called Monument Valley, located on the Navajo Nation. When I left the reservation, I made myself one promise: I would return with a Duke degree. My dream slowly turned into a nightmare.
I quickly learned that there were no classes on Native American studies, no designated space for Native students on campus, no Native professors, and no Native advisors. Most of my professors admitted that I was the first Native student they had ever knowingly taught.
I struggled to fit in at a school that prides itself on diversity, yet had no support for me. I did not feel comfortable sharing my financial, academic and overall Native struggles with a white counselor sitting across a desk trying to understand me. How could I expect someone who has never set foot on a reservation to understand my descriptions of it? Someone who could not possibly understand the intergenerational trauma I learn to suppress every day sat across me advising me to just “work a little harder,” or worse, “take some time off.” All I wanted was someone who understood the obstacles I was facing, without questioning me. I wanted to not have to defend myself every day.
I felt like a ghost. I walked across campus dreading every step to class because I couldn’t focus on studying when I saw videos of men and women sprayed with mace at Standing Rock and images of dogs attacking women and children. I feared witnessing history repeat itself. I began to care less about school when I saw yet another post on Facebook about an Indigenous women missing. So, to my professors, I am sorry if I am a little too distracted to raise my hand in class today.
As the only Native person in my classes, I am always held to an unfair standard. Numerous times I was asked by my professor to teach, to do their job, because they did not want to do the work to implement Native history in their courses. I have seen my Native friends drop out of Duke because they did not have the support they needed. I tried to fill the void of teacher, advisor and mentor for others, all the while barely staying afloat myself. I always contemplated my three options: transfer, quit, or persevere. Every day I chose the last, but it became harder to love a school that did not love me back.
It wasn’t until I joined the Sanford School of Public Policy that I truly felt seen. They welcomed me, never othered me, and when they didn’t have the resources I needed as a Native student, they connected me with organizations that did and Native alumni who could offer me further guidance. They never made me explain myself or made me feel like I had to convince them I belonged there, because they were proud to have me. It is because of the faculty at Sanford that I am here today, a senior at my dream school.
Duke needs to realize that there are Native students who continue to struggle because of the lack of support. Duke prides itself on diversity and inclusion, yet Native students are left out of this conversation. There needs to be a Native faculty member, advisor, counselor and designated space for Native students, because we cannot continue to do this alone. It has been disheartening to see my friends drop out of college or transfer to a different school knowing how much they loved Duke too.
I have tirelessly worked to create space and support for Native students through my role as an executive member of the Native American Student Alliance and as the Vice President of Alpha Pi Omega, the only two organizations dedicated to fostering the growth of Native students at Duke. I tell myself that perhaps one day another Navajo student will step onto campus, be welcomed by a Native community, and walk into a Native student center where she has resources available for her to succeed. I pray one day she will not wake up every morning convincing herself that she belongs here, because she knows she does.
Shandiin Herrera is a Trinity senior.
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