Five doctoral students have begun their journeys as the inaugural cohort for the Department of Native American Studies' (NAS) new Ph.D. program.
As the fourth program of its kind in the country, the NAS Ph.D. program offers a focus in Critical Indigenous Thought, Sustainable Community Building and Comparative Studies in Indigenous Government, Policy, Identity, and Sustainability.
The program places a strong emphasis on building the foundations necessary to become ethical leaders in tribal communities, with a focus on community-building and culturally responsive research.
For Mario Atencio (Navajo Nation), Kyle Harvey (Navajo Nation), Ruben Leyva (Chihene Nde Nation), Keioshiah Peters (Navajo Nation), and Nicole Swentzell (Santo Domingo Pueblo), their experience in the program has already had a significant impact on their future goals.
Swentzell is an alumna of the department and is no stranger to being part of its history. She was also a member of the first Master’s cohort. For her, the Ph.D. program allows her to stay close to her community while pursuing her passion.
Swentzell looks forward to inspiring this passion in future students of Native American Studies, just as her professors have. “I had some amazing professors in this field, especially those that come from Indigenous communities, who know what it means to be an Indigenous scholar and are committed to their communities,” she said. “It had a profound impact on me, and I hope to be a role model not only for the younger generations in my family but also to Native students.”
Leyva commutes from Las Cruces to be a part of the program, which he says he applied to because of NAS’ “stellar reputation” and attractiveness to Native American students, even labeling it “the Harvard of Native American Studies.”
As an elected member of the Tribal Council of the Chihene Nde Nation of New Mexico, this program will be essential in allowing Leyva to gain "knowledge and skills so that I can work on behalf of my people by documenting our history and advocating for our sovereignty.”
Atencio is also an alumnus of the department and he is thrilled with how much it has grown since he graduated in 2010. For him, the Ph.D. program will allow him up close and personal access to some of the most influential Diné scholars so that he can pursue a very special goal.
“I see that this program will help in my understanding how global climate change is going to affect the Navajo Nation and UNM will be critical for understanding and developing initiatives to start to address the myriad of the impacts of Global Climate Change,” Atencio said.
For Harvey, the program allows him the opportunity to expand upon his background in community and higher education. “In a variety of cultural contexts, education has been identified as a pathway to self and community transformation,” he said. “This program will provide me with a foundation to better understand nation-building work within tribal communities.”
To support their students’ goals, the program's faculty collaborates closely with each cohort, aligning their research interests and standing with opportunities to engage with the Navajo, Pueblo, and Apache Nations and communities.
These interactions are not only academic, but also foster genuine relationships and leadership prospects.
Leyva describes this aspect as the program as one of the most pivotal.
“One of my professors and advisor, Myla Vicenti Carpio, is new to the campus, having arrived from a professorship at Arizona State University,” said Leyva. “I was ecstatic when I learned that someone with her reputation would be a part of my Ph.D. experience. My feelings were further enhanced when I learned she was assigned as my program advisor. We are both Apache. Her success allows me to see someone with a similar background having achieved the pinnacle of academic success.”
Atencio calls the program “an incredible blessing” and says that it is already challenging his past methods of thinking and subjecting him to honest critique.
“The level of scholarship that’s expected to be done can be daunting...the pathway for new ideas is inspiring and exciting,” said Atencio. “This process is some of the most enriching education I have had in my short life.”
For Harvey, the faculty support has been foundational to him because they “are willing to share their experiences and recommendations for best practices while in a doctoral program. Throughout my years as a student, these last few semesters of taking NAS coursework have been most reaffirming for my place within the academy.”
The students’ connection to one another as they embark on this journey together is equally impactful. Leyva describes the collegiality among them as “superb,” saying, “overall, there is a high level of achievement by those working and studying in the NAS Ph.D. The program is humbling.”
Swentzell agreed and said, “I’m excited to be in this program not only to make new connections with the people on this journey with me, but also to learn from them."