Jaye “Jaxcy” Odom’s favorite childhood memories are of fry bread, a Native American treat, and hearing stories about her great-grandfather who helped negotiate the terms that enabled the Chickasaw tribe to become a federally recognized nation.
“I was fascinated by my mother’s rich culture from a very young age,” said Odom, a second-year doctoral student in Rutgers’ Graduate School of Applied and Professional Studies (GSAPP). “When I was little, I visited my mom’s family in Oklahoma and learned about Chickasaw traditions. In high school, I joined the Native American Student Association and took part in tribal meetings. Since then, my Chickasaw heritage has been a big part of my identity.”
Now Chickasaw Nation has made a big financial investment in Odom—and in her Rutgers education.
Odom, a tribal member on her mother’s side (her father’s background is Italian), entered Rutgers as a recipient of the Chickasaw Nation Lifetime Scholarship, which covers the bulk of tuition, room and board during the five years it will take Odom to complete the doctoral program.
The New Mexico native chose Rutgers’ GSAPP because of its commitment to minorities as well as the ability to earn a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst)—alongside her PsyD. Rutgers is one of the few graduate schools, she says, that offers the credential, which certifies her to administer applied behavior analysis (ABA), an effective treatment for autism.
In addition to her coursework, Odom devotes 15 hours a week to Rutgers’ Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center, where she works with 3- to 17-year-olds who are on the autism spectrum.
“I’ve known I wanted a job helping people overcome hardships since elementary school,” said Odom, who interned as a teenager shadowing mental health practitioners in a private group practice in Albuquerque. Her high school didn’t offer psychology, so she developed a course with a teacher in which she was the only student.
“When I first learned about autism, I couldn’t envision a better disorder for me to treat. I couldn’t imagine how terrible it could be not to be able communicate effectively, make friends and participate socially," says the outgoing Odom, who has a wide circle of friends and family, including a twin sister, Darcy, and a stepsister, Kate, a psychologist in Seattle who has inspired her.
Odom believes her commitment to treating autism is what convinced tribal committee members to choose her for the scholarship, which she received during her senior at the University of Kentucky. Only 10 students nationwide may benefit at any one time from the award, which provides $15,000 each semester and $5,000 during the summer for the completion of undergraduate and/or graduate school.
“I’d tried for it twice before,” Odom said. “In my sophomore year of college, I didn’t get an interview. During my junior year, I got an interview, but no scholarship.” But when she set her sights on getting her doctoral degree in clinical psychology and her BCBA, the committee was interested.
Her scholarship comes with a two-year post-graduate service commitment and Odom proposed that she work as a psychologist at one of the Chickasaw behavioral health centers to fulfill that obligation. Her goal: to educate the tribal community about autism, help change attitudes and treat members on the autism spectrum.
Though her tribe—which numbers 49,000 members who live mainly in Oklahoma—is considered a leader in health care and is making significant strides in mental health, it does not currently have a BCBA in its system.
“In Native American circles, the focus has been mainly on drugs and alcohol. In our tribe there doesn’t seem to be services specifically for the treatment of autism,” Odom said. “Autism exists, but it’s hard to gauge how prevalent it is … it may be as high as the general population, we just don’t know.”
Odom hopes to be assigned as a psychologist in Oklahoma, where her parents moved while she was in college. Her mother, Choe shi (named after Shi, her great-grandfather) works for Chickasaw Nation, managing tribal government contracts.
“It is a big honor for me to have the opportunity to serve,” Odom said. “I’m really proud of being a Chickasaw and I look forward to being able to give back, help my tribe grow, be healthy and get the services they need.”
This story originally appeared on the Rutgers University website and has been republished with permission.