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Educator Spotlight: Karen Francis-Begay Has Dedicated Her Life to Higher Education

Karen Francis-Begay, assistant vice president for tribal relations at the University of Arizona, has spent most of her life around higher education.

Karen Francis-Begay, assistant vice president for tribal relations at the University of Arizona, has spent most of her life in and around higher education. Born of the Edge of Water Clan, or Ta?ba?a?ha? [maternal clan] and born for the Towering House Clan, or Kinyaa’a?anii [paternal clan], Francis-Begay grew up in Chinle, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation and attended public school there. However, she also gained a perspective on the value of higher education from a very influential source—her family.

“My father was born in a hogan in Chinle and attended Fort Wingate Boarding School,” she says. “He then went to UA on a merit scholarship earning a bachelor’s degree in public administration and, later, a master’s in urban planning. That makes me a second-generation college student.” This educational path also broke ground for the young Navajo girl. “I spent quite a bit of time on the UA campus when I was 8 to 10 years old because both my parents were working and trying to complete their degrees. I was somewhat familiar with college life” when it was her turn to go to UA. “I was able to draw upon a support network. Even the ‘Indian adviser’ during my freshman year was the same person who had advised my parents when they were in college.”

Also, three of her aunts and an uncle obtained degrees and went on to careers in health care, education and social work. Francis-Begay’s mother also attended UA but never graduated. Her uncle taught Navajo history and culture alongside his high school science classes. “I looked up to them because they had achieved college degrees and had the ability to provide for themselves and their families while working in professions that were in high demand in our tribal communities,” she says. Even her grandmother, now 97, played a role. “Her message to us was that education is the way out of poverty. My grandmother talked about growing up poor and that she didn’t want that for any of her family or future generations.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in public administration, Francis-Begay worked at the local community college in the office of minority affairs under First Nations educator Margaret Sprague. “She encouraged me to further my career in higher education,” says Francis-Begay. After returning to her alma mater for a master’s degree in American Indian studies, Francis-Begay stayed on at UA, first in the American Indian Language Development Institute and on to her current role in tribal relations for the university.

Courtesy Amanda Cheromiah

Karen Francis-Begay, assistant vice president for tribal relations at the University of Arizona, was a second-generation college student, and spent most of her life in and around higher education.

UA’s tribal relations office was part of a team that developed a new statewide tribal consultation policy under the direction of the Arizona Board of Regents. The policy acknowledges and respects sovereignty, and directs Arizona’s three state universities to consult with tribes on matters that could have foreseeable implications. “One of the biggest topics of discussion in my line of work that pertains to this policy is on research,” since UA is one of the U.S.’s top research institutions, says Francis-Begay. “We bring the various stakeholders to the table early to discuss and negotiate on research interests that involve tribal communities and their members.” She also represents tribal interests on many campus diversity committees and addresses issues such as cultural competency and Native student recruitment and retention.

Francis-Begay is also involved in Arizona Tri-Universities for Indian Education, a consortium formed in 2000 as a result of a $1 million gift by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation to the three state universities. The consortium not only includes membership from the three state universities, but also tribal and community colleges, tribal education departments, tribal organizations and non-profits, and recently expanded to include universities and colleges in New Mexico. ATUIE recently produced several public service announcements featuring community leaders and alumni in both English and the local tribal language encouraging students to attend college.

All these initiatives are a far cry from her parents’ experience. “When my father attended UA in the late 1960s through the 70s, there were no Native or indigenous studies programs, no student cultural centers and little to no Native faculty,” Francis-Begay says. “Over the years, we’ve seen progress in these areas.”

Today, Native students have new concerns: the rise in college costs and student debt. “Fortunately, there are scholarships and funding sources to assist with paying for college,” she says, “but many families are not aware of what those resources are or how to plan and make informed decisions about paying for college.” Her office works with students and parents early and provides them with a toolkit on how to prepare for college.

Courtesy Amanda Cheromiah

Karen Francis-Begay, assistant vice president for tribal relations at the University of Arizona, has spent most of her life in and around higher education.

Also, UA created a “living-learning community” for first-year Native students to ease the transition to college. The students reside in a residential wing called O’odham Ki: (“People’s house” in O’odham), attend a college success class, and study together. It’s one reason why UA’s Native student retention rate is nearly 76 percent. “We offer programming to support social engagement and academic skills, and to reinforce culture and identity,” Francis-Begay says. Increasing transfers from community and tribal colleges is also a priority. “Many of these students have families and often face greater challenges such as finding affordable housing and securing child care.”

All these strategies are paying off at UA. “I am proud to be known for having graduated the most Native doctoral students in the country,” says Francis-Begay. “We currently have 21 Native students in the medical school. We are committed to supporting our students and want them to have rewarding experiences while they are here.”

Family is still at the center of Francis-Begay’s world. “My husband, Bernard, who has worked in the information technology department at UA, supports me in my career,” she says. “He strives to make my days brighter and worry-free. He reminds me to have balance in my life, and that my social and family life sometimes has to be secondary to doing daily research and writing.” The couple, married 30 years, have three sons—two of which who have earned college degrees.

But Francis-Begay is still traveling on the path blazed by her family: “I’m now pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education, now that my sons, Chris, Keith and Bryan, have grown up and are on their own. I am not sure where the Ph.D. will take me, but I have a passion for learning, teaching and writing and want to continue to make valuable contributions in American Indian higher education.”