Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

A student’s journey toward the stars

That possibility was sparked by her maternal grandmother, Lorraine Begay, whose parents were migrant farmworkers who spoke strictly Navajo and “came from nothing.” Lorraine’s childhood home in Coyote Springs, Arizona, didn’t have television, electricity, plumbing or running water. She was sent away to a boarding school at age 4 and later received her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Northern Arizona University. When she became a mother, she instilled in her children that an education was a must.

“My parents were very involved in my schooling and encouraged us to find a career path that would make us happy,” Erika said. “The notion of us going to college was always there.”

Erika eventually earned two degrees — a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in early childhood education from Northern Arizona University. Lorraine and Erika are hoping that Kiera lands higher.

“The first time I held Kiera in my arms, I was in the birthing room at the hospital. Her little hand held onto my finger, and I told her she was going to be the first doctor in our family because that’s what I expected of her,” said Lorraine Begay, who worked in education, the health care industry and several Native American social organizations throughout her career. “I have high expectations for all of my children and grandchildren. I’m a firm believer that an education can bring so many opportunities and help you get over life’s hurdles.”

In order for all of this to work, Erika and Jeroy kept two residences and enlisted relatives pitching in to help out. Erika works and has an apartment in Tohaali, New Mexico, about an hour from Kiera’s boarding school in Farmington. Jeroy works around the state at various construction sites while their other two kids — Ciera, 13, and Jeryn, 11 — attend a Bureau of Indian Education school in Tohaali. On weekends, they drive home to Many Farms, where they own the land and live close to other family, including Jeroy’s mother.

On Fridays, Kiera’s school bus would take her back to Many Farms, a two-and-a-half-hour commute. On Sunday afternoons, she would head back to Farmington, another long bus ride. Kiera did this for four years.

It’s a lot of logistics to work out, and not a situation that many could sustain. It helps that Kiera’s parents know what academic guidance and discipline to provide, having been through college themselves. But it’s still a nonstop whirlwind.

It worked for the Charleys, however, through a lot of family effort and caring instructors at the prep school where Kiera attended.

Those who studied or worked with her at Navajo Preparatory School say she was exceptional, disciplined and devoted to her studies.  

‘”Kiera has a unique personality in that she’s well-rounded, very nice and likes to try new things. Even if she doesn’t know something, she does her best to do better,” said Keona Hosteen, who was a year ahead of Kiera at Navajo Prep and just finished her second year at Northern Arizona University. “She’s also someone who pushes others to do better like an older sister would. She has a high expectation of herself, and that rubs off on others.”

Yolanda Flores, Kiera’s science teacher at Navajo Prep, would agree with that assessment.

“Kiera was a very active student who advocated for herself and was very inquisitive in class. She was a kid who would raise her hand and say, ‘Ms. Flores, I don’t understand. Would you please explain that again?'” said Flores, who has taught since 2012 at Navajo Prep, which has a student body of about 260 students. “We want to develop students to become leaders now and into the future. I tell all of my kids success is not always a straight path and it’s like a river. It can go left; it can go right. But whatever direction it takes you, make sure you go towards that dream.”

Video of Star student Kiera Charley on family, culture: Arizona State University (ASU)

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

Kiera’s hard work paid off: She won a prestigious Flinn Scholarship, which helped her family out tremendously.

“If she didn’t get the scholarship, it would have been a struggle to send her to college,” Erika Begay said. “We told her that all of the colleges she was accepted to, she would have to accept the one that offered the most financial assistance. We were ecstatic to learn she was a Flinn Scholar recipient.”

The Flinn Scholarship — valued at more than $130,000 — covers tuition, fees, room and board at one of Arizona’s state universities, plus study abroad. In order to qualify, Arizona high school senior candidates must maintain a 3.5 GPA, rank in the top 5% of their graduating class, and participate and demonstrate leadership in a variety of extracurricular activities. Each year, the Flinn Foundation chooses about 20 recipients; in 2021, they chose those 20 out of a pool of almost 1,100 applications.

Kiera is the 10th Native American to receive a Flinn Scholarship; the first went to Shelly C. Lowe in 1992. Lowe, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation from Ganado, Arizona, grew up about 50 miles from Kiera’s home in Many Farms. She currently serves as the chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities, having been nominated by President Joe Biden and confirmed in February 2022. Before that, she worked as the executive director of the Harvard University Native American Program.

Lowe said she reached out to Kiera after learning she was a finalist for the Flinn Scholarship to help talk her through what to expect and how to prepare for the interview process, and to discuss her options for college as Kiera had also applied for admission to Harvard.  

“I had a good idea where Kiera was coming from, that she was excited about the prospect of being a Flinn Scholar, but that she would also have many questions about the interview process and what it would be like to be a Flinn Scholar,” said Lowe, who is currently working on her PhD in higher education with a focus on American Indian student success and services at the University of Arizona. “I also knew she would potentially face a number of stereotypes and assumptions as a Native American college-seeking student coming from a rural community on the Navajo reservation.”

Lowe said Kiera is like many Native students who seek out higher education — she has the ability, the desire, the dedication, the commitment to succeed, and often a wide-ranging support system of family and community members, school affiliates, her tribe and even funding organizations like the Flinn Foundation — but too often, high-achieving Native students like Kiera end up at a college or university that fails to support their path to educational success. The institution just doesn’t become part of the support system, Lowe said. 

“Too many institutions buy into the stereotypes that perpetuate excuses about the lack of Native student success being based on ideas of cultural mismatch, which place the problem on the student,” Lowe said. “I wanted to give Kiera confidence and strengthen her determination, while reassuring her she has someone to reach out to when she is confronted with struggles.”   

In addition to staying in touch through texts and phone calls, Lowe sent Kiera a Native-inspired throw blanket for her high school graduation. These acts of kindness have touched Kiera.

“Even though she’s a very busy lady, I look at her as a mentor,” Kiera said.

Lowe traveled a similar path 30 years ago. Now she sees herself as a part of the institutional support that will help Kiera succeed.

Although the Flinn Scholarship helped pay for Kiera’s tuition at ASU, she — and other Native American students — still had other issues to overcome. But those awaited her in Tempe.

Traversing the topography

As the Charley family navigates the wind-swept high desert of the Navajo reservation in their blue Chevy SUV, they discuss Kiera’s hard work, past successes and the challenges to come. It’s approximately six hours from Many Farms to Tempe, but really, they’re traversing worlds. By the time they leave the Flagstaff pines behind and begin the long descent to metro Phoenix, it’s beginning to sink in for all of them.

For the family, Kiera’s departure is beginning to hit home. For Kiera, the goal she has worked so hard to get to is drawing closer. And she’s electrified.

“I’m both nervous and excited. … I’m nervous because I’m younger than the average college freshman,” Kiera said. “But there’s a sense of excitement knowing I’ll be going out into the world by myself and having the opportunity to experience all of these new things over the next four years.”

The buildings on the Charley land — home to Kiera and her extended family, including one of her grandmothers, and her aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and siblings — can just be seen on top of the mesa in the distance. It’s part of the community of Many Farms, near Chinle in remote northeastern Arizona. A far different setting awaited Kiera on ASU’s Tempe campus, which has a student population of about 55,000. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Kiera has arrived two weeks before the start of the fall semester to check into the residence hall at Barrett, The Honors College and attend SPIRIT, an early-start camp for incoming American Indian students to get a jump on the school year.

Hosted by ASU’s American Indian Student Support Services (AISSS), the orientation program moves students into the dorms two weeks early in order to get acclimated to their new environment and make new friends in anticipation of often-experienced culture shock during what, for many students, is their first time away from home.

Laura Gonzales-Macias, interim director of AISSS, said the purpose of SPIRIT is to “create a successful environment for Indigenous students and to strengthen their confidence as well as foster a sense of belonging.” That includes giving equal attention to students’ intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.

The program features several group activities and more than 30 presentations and workshops by Indigenous students, alumni, faculty and administrators from many ASU student-support units and student organizations. Participants also complete a one-week course designed to strengthen their sense of purpose and set them up for academic success by introducing resources and electronic tools such as MyASU, Canvas and GetSet. They also make meaningful connections with other Indigenous peers through culturally inspired activities.

It’s part of the support structure that has helped ASU grow its cohort of Indigenous students. As of the fall 2021 semester, the university has nearly 3,800 self-identifiedThis number reflects students who self-identify as Native American. ASU’s enrollment according to IPEDS — the data program for the National Center for Education Statistics that is commonly used to compare institutions — is lower, because if a student identifies as both Hispanic and Native American, the Hispanic category takes precedence and the student is counted only as Hispanic. In addition, non-Hispanic students who identify more than one race are reported in the “two or more races” category without any indication in the data of what those two races are. Native American students, an increase of nearly 90% over the past decade.

Kiera said SPIRIT was both helpful and inspiring.

“It was nice to see other Native American students on campus and helped me to overcome the feeling that I might be the only one,” Kiera said. “It was also good to see others who are interested in also pursuing higher education and how much they’ve thought about their own future.”

While at SPIRIT, Kiera met Téa Scott, a Gates Scholar from Montezuma Creek, Utah. That friendship has proven fruitful for both students.

“I think we connected because we are both from the Navajo reservation and have similar backgrounds,” said Scott, who is majoring in political science and minoring in American Indian studies. “We started hanging out, and it was just nice to see a familiar face on campus. She feels more like a sibling than a friend.”

Scott said the two attended InfernoFest 2021, one of the first large, in-person campus gatherings since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Aug. 17 fall welcome concert featured rapper Jack Harlow, who played to thousands of students at Tempe’s Sun Devil Stadium before the start of the semester.

The following morning, the two attended the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples’ Semester Blessing on the lawn outside of Discovery Hall on the Tempe campus.

“It was a nice ceremony, and it’s nice to stay in touch with our traditional roots,” Scott said. “That’s important to us.”

A crowd of Native American students gather outside, looking toward a stage off camera

New first-year student Kiera Charley (center) joins others during the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples’ Semester Blessing early on Aug. 18, 2021, outside Discovery Hall on the Tempe campus. The Tempe campus sits on the ancestral homelands of Indigenous peoples including the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Pee Posh (Maricopa). Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Scott said even though Kiera is extremely focused on her studies and getting good grades, she does have a lighter side. She said Kiera likes watching Netflix, going to movies, visiting boba shops, and listening to and collecting the music of K-pop groups.

“She (Kiera) likes Korean and Japanese culture, and when you connect with her on that level, she really opens up,” Scott said. “It’s fun to see that side of her.”

Those moments notwithstanding, Kiera isn’t too focused on her social life right now. She has worked hard to make it to Tempe, and she’s on a mission.

“I’m not a social person, and I tend to spend a lot of time by myself,” Kiera said. “I enjoy studying, and I enjoy reading. A few friends are all I need. I’m really here to get my degree and get started on a path toward my career.”

Navigating the Tempe campus at first can be challenging. It has a student population of about 55,000. The entire Chinle population is a little under 5,000. But she’s finding the niches that makes the campus less overwhelming. One of those is the American Indian Student Support Services, on the third floor of Discovery Hall on the Tempe campus.

“The American Indian Student Support Services is home to all Indigenous students at ASU, and we proactively support student success from application to graduation,” said Gonzales-Macias, who noted it is a service unit under the umbrella of University College. “We are also a community, and we want everyone who comes here to feel welcome and supported.”

Located on all ASU campuses, AISSS provides a warm and inclusive space that incorporates cultural conscientiousness and social identity. It’s also where Indigenous students can study, meditate, socialize, pick up food resources, receive career and academic counseling from retention coordinators, check out a laptop, use computers and even get free printing.

The latter is what initially drew Kiera. Since then, she spends several hours a day at the Tempe AISSS during the week. It’s become her go-to study spot.

“I like it because it’s small and secluded and away from the main part of campus where there’s so many people,” Kiera said. “It’s a space where I can do homework, get some printing done and interact with other students I recognize.”

Seals of various Native nations are on a window in an office and study space

The Navajo Nation’s tribal seal is one of nearly two dozen displayed in the Tempe campus’ American Indian Student Support Services office in Discovery Hall. There are AISSS locations on all four ASU campuses, providing an inclusive space that incorporates cultural conscientiousness and social identity — and also a place to study and socialize. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Kiera also recognizes Gonzales-Macias. The two usually smile and wave at each other.

“Kiera’s a very independent and motivated young lady,” Gonzales-Macias said. “She usually comes in and heads to her favorite spot. I’ve also seen her pop in on some of the Zoom networking sessions we’ve hosted. She has definitely used this space a lot this semester.”

There are other places on the Tempe campus she hasn’t explored yet — like the Center for Indian Education and the Labriola National American Indian Data Center — but will most likely get to in time.

Established in the late 1950s, the Center for Indian Education’s mission is to serve as a research and resource center in the field of American Indian/Alaskan Native and Indigenous education and related fields at local, state, national and international levels.

Colin Ben, associate director of the center and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, said the work they do is transformational for Indigenous communities and students alike.

“All of the work that we do is geared towards giving back to the Indigenous community, and part of that is mentoring the next generation of Native American scholars,” said Ben, who is also an assistant research professor and lead of the online Master of Arts in Indigenous education program in the School of Social Transformation. “We mentor and show undergraduate and graduate students the research process, how to conduct a literature review, data analysis and how to identify thematic findings.”

Ben said the center’s research takes an interdisciplinary approach and could use Kiera’s skills when it comes to STEM research.

“Having that conversation with Kiera to see what her interests are and how we can connect her with other Indigenous role models would be a good start for us to engage with her,” Ben said. “It’s also a good way for Kiera to build community while she’s here.”

The Labriola National American Indian Data Center, located inside the Hayden Library on the Tempe campus, is another place that Kiera could find herself once she starts writing research papers.

With an emphasis on language, government, education, tribal history, biography, religion and customs, the Labriola Center features thousands of books, journals, Native newspapers and primary source materials, such as photographs, oral histories and manuscript collections.

“With all of the Native American scholars emerging at ASU, we have resources and archives that Kiera might someday use in her research,” said Alex Soto, director of the Labriola Center and a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. “She can come to the library and know that we offer the best support for her research. … Maybe one day, Kiera will be the one providing data to our library.”

But for now, she’s hitting the books, not writing them. Perhaps someday she will, though.

Plugging into the source

Getting Kiera to focus on her studies is not a problem. But getting a social foothold in the sea of students in Tempe is another matter.

She’s not a joiner by nature, but this is her first university experience, and she’s willing to try new things — such as the aformentioned Alliance of Indigenous Peoples’ Semester Blessing at the start of the fall semester.

Two Native American men shake gourd instruments while performing a semester blessing ceremony

Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Vice President Ricardo Leonard and ASU alum Gabriel Garcia (right) of the Tohono O’Odham Nation sing a blessing for the fall 2021 semester during the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples’ event Aug. 18, 2021. Students and university and tribal leaders spoke about the rich heritage of the Native peoples on the Tempe campus and around the Valley. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

“The blessing is a kickoff event that is intended to start out the year with positive energy, positive vibes and share our cultural connection with all Native American tribe members,” said Ayden Clytus, program facilitator for the alliance and a second-year justice studies major. “It’s a cool way to bring Indigenous students together and form a bond.”

According to Clytus, the annual blessing was started in the mid-1990s by Cal Seciwa, a former director of what was the predecessor of the American Indian Student Support Services and an enrolled member of the Zuni tribe in New Mexico. Seciwa, who died in 2009, wanted Indigenous students to have special experiences of their own while living on campus but remain connected to their roots, such as prayers of protection, which would typically occur within their own community.

Kiera knew about the event through Clytus, whom she met at SPIRIT camp.

“SPIRIT camp is a way for me to promote the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples and encourage other students to get involved with the coalition,” said Clytus, who is a Navajo from St. Michaels, Arizona, near Window Rock. “I try to make myself a friendly presence, especially for incoming Native American students.”

It worked with Kiera: She not only showed up at the blessing, but for some of the alliance’s other events throughout the semester. Clytus said Kiera helped with decoration of the alliance’s homecoming float, which was done on a field outside Tempe’s Sun Devil Fitness Complex.

Titled “Those Who Sleep in Our Graveyard,” the float featured several headstones addressing the recent discoveries of bodies at Native American boarding schools in Canada and the United States, and the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women who are killed at a rate 10 times higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Clytus said Kiera also began showing up for the alliance’s general body meetings, held twice a month. The meetings showcase what the alliance does on a coalition level and helps Indigenous students bond with each other and encourages them to become leaders. Clytus said Kiera has demonstrated leadership through her attendance and participation and is encouraging her to run for an alliance position next year.

“We are having shadowing sessions pretty soon, and we want her to consider running for a position,” Clytus said. “I’ve told her, ‘You should try it. It’s good. It’ll get you out there and expose you to different things.’ I’m pretty sure she will.”

Kiera took care of the spiritual and the social — now she’s ready to take care of business.

She did the latter by attending the American Indian Science and Engineering Society Conference at the Phoenix Convention Center on Sept. 24, 2021, just a little over a month into her first semester.

The annual conference is a three-day event focusing on educational, professional and workforce development for Indigenous peoples of North America and the Pacific Islands in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies and careers. Attendees typically include Indigenous high school and college students, educators and professionals, including representatives from tribal nations, tribal enterprises and Indigenous-owned businesses. The conference also includes the largest college and career fair in the U.S. for Indigenous students and professionals. Exhibitors include corporations, educational institutions, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, tribes and Indigenous-owned businesses.

She was there networking even though she’s four years away from graduation. Kiera strolled vendor booths seeking information on internships, job openings and meeting people like her. While most first-year students are thinking about getting acclimated to campus life, where they’ll eat or how they’ll spend their weekend, Kiera is a few steps ahead. She is thinking about employment.

“I want to have a clear plan for the future and have it all detailed, perhaps even have a backup plan or two, like graduate school, research or pursue a career in data science,” said Kiera, who spent the day networking with prospective employers and ended up passing out literature for a table. “I’m taking steps now in order to make that path easier and more accessible in the future.”

Two young women speak at astronomy conference with booths behind them and one woman holding a NASA bag

Navajo Prep friends Kiera Charley (left) and Keona Hosteen, a second-year Northern Arizona University student, meet up at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society Conference’s expo on Sept. 24, 2021, at the Phoenix Convention Center. Hosteen was helping at the NASA First Nations Launch booth and was handing out stickers. Kiera’s goal for the day at the annual convention was to check out research done by students and look at a couple of vendors for future career opportunities. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Kiera also took another positive step by joining the Indigenous Geoscience Community, a sustainable community of Indigenous geoscientists who come together to share knowledge using a relational framework, such that traditional and Western knowledge can be expressed within culturally specific protocols without disciplinary boundaries.

She did so at the encouragement of Darryl Reano, an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“We’re hoping one of the outcomes from this would be to match students like Kiera with mentors for undergraduate experiences during the summer,” said Reano, a member of the Acoma Pueblo Tribe, whose research is focused on creating culturally relevant educational environments using Indigenous research frameworks. “It’s important to give Indigenous students opportunities and experiences that support their agency and connections to their culture.”

Reano said he was introduced to Kiera by email through another professor early in the fall semester. He made it a point to meet with Kiera and offer his support as she navigates the academic terrain of the university.

“Mentoring Indigenous students requires a holistic approach,” Reano said. “It’s something that Native American faculty are equipped to provide because of their lived experience within their community.”

While she has managed to connect to colleges, academic units and clubs, Kiera has also made a new friend after Scott’s departureTéa Scott left ASU at the completion of the fall semester because of concerns with COVID-19 outbreaks. She is continuing her education through ASU Online.. Kaitlyn Newman is a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and going on the same academic journey as Kiera.

“We both come from small towns on the Indian reservation, and that gives us a commonality,” said Newman, who is a first-year business student at the W. P. Carey School of Business. “Kiera is very straightforward at times but is also calm and collected. She thinks about others first, which is what makes her special.”

The two have become fast friends in a short period of time. They share meals, hike, study and watch movies together. On Jan. 21, they sat on a blanket and watched a special screening of “Dune” on the field at Sun Devil Stadium as part of ASU’s 365 Community Union.

The two also frequently attend alliance meetings and discuss life on the reservation and the new life they’re both entering.

“Having Kiera here is like having a close friend or family member back home,” Newman said. “It’s nice seeing a familiar face every day.”

It’s not like Kiera is completely cut off from her family, though. They manage to visit about once a month, sharing meals, going to movies and enjoying time together as a family.

“We try to visit Kiera monthly because we never want her to feel as if she’s alone or forgotten,” said her mother, Erika. “Even though we speak or text daily, it’s not the same as seeing her in person to notice if she’s stressed, worried or excited. Phone calls lack the intimacy of a visit and are often rushed. As a mom, I want Kiera to be able to share and confide in me. She needs to know her family is there for her and we’re here to support her.”

These visits have sustained Kiera through the semester, who was looking forward to going back to Many Farms for the winter break.

She’ll always miss the vast, high desert of Many Farms. But deep down, she knows it’s no longer her permanent home because of her choice of career.  

Winter break

It’s Christmas Eve, and Kiera Charley is back in Many Farms. It’s cold, it’s dark and a big snowstorm is about to sweep through the area.

Her first semester was busy but went by quickly. She has three weeks to decompress from her studies, and most of her time is spent with family visiting, sharing meals, wrapping gifts and assembling stockings filled with fruits, nuts and candies. Everyone is enjoying one another’s company. Three generations are all together under one roof.

As Christmas Eve nears, the younger children are playing video games while adults are cooking, conversing and preparing a large meal. A traditional wood-burning stove keeps everyone warm.

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