Inside USD

Strengthening Education for Native Americans

Friday, December 11, 2009

A smile lights up Michelle Jacob’s face when she reflects on the importance placed on education by her family and leaders of the Yakama Nation reservation in Washington where she grew up.

“Any time the children made the honor roll at school, there was a celebration. They’d have lunch for us, tribe leaders would give speeches and tell us how proud they were,” Jacob said. “But what they were really doing was socializing us to be leaders and to achieve through education. And without my parents being so supportive — believing in me and affirming the message at home on a daily basis — there’s no way I’d be here.”

Jacob, armed with multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in Sociology, is in her fourth year as an Ethnic Studies professor at the University of San Diego. It’s here, too, where Jacob passes on the importance of education to the next generation of Native American students.

She’s the faculty advisor for USD’s Native American Student Organization (NASO) and through USD’s Community Service-Learning has partnered with the San Diego-based American Indian Recruitment Program (AIR). The affiliation enables several USD students to tutor and work closely with local reservation youth toward academic success and provide key information about college opportunities. The USD partnership has also exposed AIR students to faculty within the Sociology, English and Engineering departments and the Office of Admissions.

Knowing she’d get to do hands-on work with San Diego’s vast Native communities helped draw Jacob to USD. “There’s an expectation in the Ethnic Studies department that we’re not only scholars, but community-based scholars. It was a relief to find a department that is that committed to service in its community.”

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Jacob, who maintains an active role within her own Yakama reservation through a wellness program aimed at education and prevention of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, wasted no time connecting with AIR. She attended an AIR banquet in August 2006, shortly before she started at USD. “I was so impressed with their work. I talked with them about partnering with USD; there were a lot of factors to mediate, but we started that year and we’ve built up the partnership.”

Last month, AIR honored Jacobs as a community leader and USD students Roberta Garcia ‘11 and Kate Gordon ‘10 (pictured, left to right with Jacobs, far right) for their commitment as mentors. “It’s unprecedented,” she said of the multiple program offerings USD has in place. “But it works because we’re devoted to community-based work and we have students who are passionate about social justice.”

Wynona Peters ’11 is one such student. A double major in Ethnic Studies and Sociology, Peters, who grew up on the Tohono O’odham reservation near Tucson, Ariz., is among a small group of Native American students at USD. As co-president of NASO with Garcia, Peters said Jacob’s presence and the chance to work in the AIR program has been a rewarding experience.

“Michelle has been a big supporter,” Peters said. “She’s built a community that’s comfortable for me. I learned about AIR through a friend, but I got involved through her class. I enjoy working with the kids, learning from them and being a support system. Whatever they need from me, I’m there for them.”

Jacob strives to find new ways to help. She and sociology professor Belinda Lum submitted a grant proposal that could bridge Linda Vista, Yakama and AIR through cultural projects and presenting and documenting oral histories.

In January, Jacob begins a two-year Native health research project involving social, behavioral and health sciences that is funded by the National Institutes of Health. It will reduce Jacob’s USD teaching load, but it’s educational research that benefits the Native community, just like USD’s involvement in the AIR program.

“We’re trying to foster a dedication to applied scholarship,” Jacob said. “It’s one thing to sit in class and read about social problems facing tribal communities, but it’s quite another to actually play a part in addressing social problems.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Photo courtesy of Belinda Lum

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