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At 73, ASU Indian programs director still truckin’ for students

Peterson Zah serves as special adviser on Indian affairs to ASU President Michael Crow. (Photo courtesy of ASU)

Peterson Zah serves as special adviser on Indian affairs to ASU President Michael Crow. (Photo courtesy of ASU)

In 1961, five Navajo students entered Arizona State University with little idea of what to expect. Today, the seeds planted by that group have sprouted into an American Indian student population of approximately 1,400 from 60-plus tribes, as well as several programs designed to recruit, retain and graduate those students.

One of those original five students, Peterson Zah, says he was instilled with a love of higher education from his parents. Although he grew up in the remote reservation community of Low Mountain, Ariz., he says he always knew he was headed for college.

“One year, the four or five of us really went out and tried to persuade some more Indian students to come to ASU,” recalls Zah, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1963. “The next year, we had three more students. We were so happy because we were making progress.”

Zah served as the last chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council and, in 1990, he became the first elected president of the Navajo Nation. Today, Zah, 73, is the cheíí, or grandfather, of recruitment and retention programs at ASU, serving as the special adviser on American Indian affairs to university President Michael Crow.

“I never dreamed that we would have this many American Indian students,” says Zah, who travels to rodeos, tribal gatherings and ceremonies each summer to get the word out about the programs available to native students.

In addition to the assistance offered to Native American students, the institution’s American Indian Initiatives program aims to develop strategic alliances between ASU and American Indian tribes, ensuring adequate support services are provided to native students and encouraging Native American programs throughout the university.

Zah’s office also works to encourage tribes to use the university’s resources to support economic and community development, planning, finance, law, construction and education.

American Indian university students, who face unique challenges on their road to a diploma, benefit from these efforts.

Some are normal events experienced by all students, such as starting families or changing majors. However, strong extended family ties and ceremonial obligations particular to tribal culture can have a greater impact on Indian students.

Sometimes, the need to return home for ceremonies or to care for family affects the performance of native students for an entire semester. The school’s programs help ease the impact of these events, enabling Indian students to achieve academic success while retaining their cultural ties.

Jaynie Parrish, Zah’s assistant and the coordinator of the American Indian Initiatives program, is one of a group of eight ASU native graduates who returned to the university to work with potential and current Native American students.

Parrish, a Navajo from Window Rock, and her associates make site visits to tribal communities, where they familiarize high school students with ASU’s American Indian programs. “We introduce them to the (college entrance) process and also work with their local recruiter,” says Parrish. “We also have a middle school program that introduces kids to the idea of college.”

But there’s more to site visits than just bringing along catalogs and glossy brochures. “Recruiters know that if they go to a tribal community, they get better results if they bring a Native American staff member or a student,” Parrish says. “The kids really respond to the students.”

One of those students, Kimberly Silentman-Kanuho, graduated from ASU with a master’s degree in urban planning in 2005 and now works for the Del E. Webb School of Construction and coordinates the annual Construction in Indian Country Conference. She appreciates the help she received from the school’s programs and Zah himself.

“Mr. Zah is always approachable,” Silentman-Kanuho says. “His door is always open.”

At one point, she needed that open door. “The first year was really rough,” says Silentman-Kanuho, who traveled from her small-town home of Fort Defiance, Ariz., to attend ASU. Like other Native American students and alumni, she credits family support and the university’s student programs with helping keep her in school.

Everetta Thinn, who hails from Shonto, deep in the Navajo Nation, graduated from ASU with dual degrees in political science and American Indian studies in 2007.

“Nobody in my family knew how to guide me through the process of getting scholarships or selecting a program,” she says.

Thinn attended the Native American Summer Institute (NASI) and was chosen to participate in the Native American Achievement Program (NAAP), which manages scholarships and monitors academic progress during students’ first two years.

“When I started college, I was shy. But then I met some people, and Aaron Woods, the director of the summer institute, showed us where everything was,” says Thinn. “If it hadn’t been for NASI, I wouldn’t have known where to go.”

Thinn credits the school’s Native American-geared programs with helping her blossom. “They talked me into helping with the Miss Indian ASU pageant,” says Thinn, who became Miss Indian ASU herself in 2003.

“I’m shy no more!” she laughs.

Some of ASU’s other Native American organizations include a chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society; American Indian Students United in Nursing and Arizona Tri-Universities for Indian Education, which in partnership with Arizona’s other universities, promotes educational opportunities and works to improve academic and student services for American Indian students.

And the work of these organizations and programs is ongoing.

Due to the efforts of Native American programs at ASU, the university’s admissions office will continue to work with new students until one week before the start of fall classes.

Zah says he’s already spreading the word about the new Obama Scholar Program. “The program is going to go over really well in Indian Country,” he says.

ASU recently expanded the qualifying family income level for the scholars’ program to $60,000. The school noted in a May 5 press release that the move more than tripled the number of students receiving money for tuition, fees, books and room and board. Now roughly 1,600 students participate in the program.

Zah, a natural leader who received an honorary Ph.D. in 2005, has served the Navajo Nation in several governmental posts. During his tenure at ASU, which began in 1996, he has been credited with doubling the number of Indian students and increasing the retention rate to 78 percent from 43 percent. ASU graduated approximately 150 Native American students after the spring semester this year.

“Peterson Zah is a senior statesman among the Native American people and has been a key leader in bringing students to ASU and helping them succeed once they are here,” ASU President Michael Crow noted in a 2005 statement. “He has a passion for education, and that message carries a lot of power when it comes from someone who is held in such high respect.”

However, Zah acknowledges that he’s beginning to slow down. “I used to make 10 to 12 speeches a year at graduations,” he says. “Now, I’m down to about five or six.” Parrish also noted that Zah is training his staff to take over the initiatives in preparation for his eventual departure from university life.

However, don’t look for Zah to give up his position anytime soon. He still travels across Arizona to deliver his message of academic support for Native American students in his silver Nissan truck, which he says now has more than 300,000 miles on the odometer.

Nevertheless, he’s keen to continue his outreach efforts as long as possible. “I was struck by the responsibility I had taken on when my wife Rosalind and I were driving through Payson on our way down to the Valley when I took the job back in 1995,” he says.

“She said to me after one of those long silences that you experience on the road, ‘We’re going to see many more Indian students going to ASU because you’ll be there. It’s a very powerful gesture to have you on the students’ side so they can reach their full potential in life.’”

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