As UNM alumnus Kellen Shelendewa put it, "Delia Halona is Native American Studies." For 12 years, Halona has been a lifeline for students from the moment they enter NAS.

"She is there when students need a hand, whether that be a cup of coffee, encouragement, use of the copier, advice – she does it all," said Shelendewa, case manager for the All My Relations Project of First Nations Community HealthSource.

Originally from Tohatchi, Navajo Nation, Halona first joined UNM in 1986, working in Human Resources, Academic Affairs and other areas. After a few years at Arizona State University, she returned to Albuquerque to be closer to family and has been the administrative assistant with NAS ever since.

NAS Chair Greg Cajete said, "She is the longest continuing staff person in the UNM NAS program and deserves great praise for her commitment to the program in good times and in bad. She is greatly respected by faculty and students alike." Her dedication to the department was recognized in 2006 with the Provost's Outstanding Staff award.

In a department with a small staff and budget, Halona takes on many roles, including supporting a growing faculty. She said faculty mentor students beyond the classroom through independent study and internships – a requirement for the major. They help students connect academic interests to concrete working experiences through partnerships with pueblos, tribes and indigenous communities in and around Albuquerque.

That community-centered approach is a big part of the program's appeal. Halona said students often feel torn by conflicting obligations, including family. To encourage students to stay in college, she reminds them that they're pursuing an education to benefit their families and communities as well as themselves. She also helps them set manageable goals to stay on track for a degree at their own pace.

"It makes me so proud to see that they do finish," she said.

Family is at the center of Halona's life outside work. She said she spends most of her time keeping her daughters active – all three play soccer.