NORMAN, Okla. - E. Star L. Oosahwe graduated with a bachelor's degree in communication from Arizona State University in 1997. She then graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a master's degree in education in 2001 and earned her doctoral degree in May from OU in adult and higher education.
Oosahwe beat the odds when she earned her doctorate. According to a study by P. Martinez, American Indians have the highest high school dropout rate. Also, the National Indian Gaming Commission reported only 13.3 percent of Natives have an undergraduate college degree, compared with the national average of 24 percent.
Oosahwe grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. She was continually inspired by her grandmother, Rosa Cintron. Her family, friends and, later, her fiance, Easton Yellowfish, gave her love and encouragement to overcome the tremendous odds stacked against her.
Oosahwe's family expected her to attend college, but even she wasn't sure of her goals at first.
''It wasn't until my junior and senior year in college that a fire was lit under me,'' she said.
As she attended her classes, she said, she was stunned to find a majority of people were ignorant to American Indian culture.
''It was then that a fire was lit that would get me through the rest of my education,'' she said. ''My motivation was twofold - to help Indian students get to a college and graduate, and to educate non-Natives in the process.''
Oosahwe also admits she never knew that she wanted a Ph.D. She realized that in order to do what she loved in life - research and writing - obtaining a doctoral degree was her only option.
''I took it one year at a time, one paper at a time, and so on. Suddenly, four years passed by and there I was, standing on a stage being hooded as a doctor of philosophy in education,'' she said.
Oosahwe currently works for the Oklahoma City Public School District as the administrator for Native American students; she oversees the district's Title VII Indian Education and Johnson O'Malley grants. In this position, she is able to attain yet another goal: empowering Native youth.
''I want them to believe that they can have it all,'' she said.
Oosahwe feels more could be done to not only get Natives into higher education, but that focus also needs to be placed on them graduating as well. She points out that higher education means not only the university setting, but also military, community and tribal colleges. ''There are many avenues an Indian student can take to get to their dream.''
Oosahwe also believes that many Indian youth are being overlooked.
''We cannot just focus on the high-achieving students. Let's also raise up our Indian students who aren't doing well in school - these students have just as much potential as our 'good' students. A little praise, encouragement and love go a long way,'' she said.
To young Natives, Oosahwe offered advice: take education one small step at a time - one academic year at a time - and don't get overwhelmed. ''Breaking your dream up into smaller goals gives you small successes that eventually get you to your overall dream,'' she said.
Oosahwe wants to send a message to today's American Indian students: ''Never let someone dictate who you are as a person and what you are about. Love yourself and believe in yourself.''