WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. has congratulated three University of Arizona graduate students for receiving their doctoral degrees in engineering, which set a UA record for Navajos receiving the highest academic degree attainable.
In letters of congratulations to former Miss Navajo Nation Karletta Chief of Black Mesa, Julius Yellowhair of Black Mesa, and Pete Littlehat of Red Mesa, Shirley said the Navajo Nation and people could not be prouder of their academic achievement nor of their personal commitment to working toward an extraordinarily difficult goal.
''You are to be congratulated for your commitment and perseverance in attaining the most difficult and esteemed achievement in higher education - the Ph.D.,'' Shirley wrote.
''Your achievement serves as an excellent model for Navajo students now in high school and younger who aspire to achieve a lot in life through the ladder of education.''
All three students began their educations speaking only Navajo, and were raised in homes without running water or electricity.
Chief received her doctorate in hydrology and water resources. She came to UA on a competitive National Science Foundation fellowship.
''Oh, it's a great feeling of satisfaction,'' she said. ''I still look back and look at all those years of hard work. It's sometimes hard to believe.''
Like Yellowhair and Littlehat, Chief grew up traditionally.
''My initial entrance to college and completing my Ph.D. were both challenging in their own respect and in their own unique way,'' she said. ''Going to college was very challenging because it was my first time away from home and it was a major cultural adjustment. It's like learning to walk in a world I was unfamiliar with. Learning to walk was hard but once I learned how to walk, I had to learn how to run as fast as I could in this new world with all the tools I was given.''
She said her first aspiration was simply to go to college and get a bachelor's degree, rather than complete a doctorate.
''I could not imagine going for my Ph.D.,'' she said. ''I wasn't sure if I should pursue it or not.''
But she was recruited to enter graduate school and encouraged by advisers along the way.
''It's one of the most difficult things that I've done in my life because it causes you to think in a way that you've never thought of, innovatively, scientifically and from an engineering point of view.''
She said she was fortunate to be selected as a recipient of the National Science Foundation fellowship that allowed her to attend any university of her choosing and she chose UA.
''A lot of times I felt alone,'' she said of her doctoral research. ''My advisers were there to guide me, but they didn't know behind the scenes the work I was doing and they had never done a project of my sort.''
But she said she became determined and just kept working hard.
''It's amazing how it all came together at the end,'' she said. ''It was truly a great honor for me to meet Julius [Yellowhair] and Pete [Littlehat]. We used to get together and talk Navajo with each other. It was a great honor to graduate with them.''
Yellowhair received his doctorate in optical sciences.
His graduate work was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan - American Indian Graduate Partnership.
He said from the time he began college, it was always his desire to get a doctoral degree. When he completed his master's degree at the University of New Mexico in 2000, he realized the possibility of fulfilling his dream was within reach.
He said getting a doctorate ''was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. It was challenging.
''My parents are very traditional,'' Yellowhair said. ''My dad had a year to two years of school. Mom never went to school. We grew up in a very rural area, herding sheep, speaking only Navajo. My grandfather was a traditional medicine man.''
Today, he said he feels a bit drained and tired but very satisfied and fulfilled.
''I realized it was possible,'' he said of his degree. ''I realized that if you have a dream and you follow that dream and stick to your guns and work hard, be persistent, you'll eventually get there, and that's what happened to me.''
Yellowhair is currently employed by Sandia National Laboratories in Tucson, helping to develop lightweight mirrors for adaptive imaging for space applications.
Littlehat received his doctorate in environmental engineering. His graduate work was also funded by the Alfred P. Sloan - American Indian Graduate Partnership.
He said getting his doctorate involved pushing himself to achieve what few before him have. He credited his parents with urging him to seek education because they were not given the same opportunity.
''They never went to school before,'' he said. ''My mom speaks Navajo. She doesn't speak any English at all.
''She reminded us without any type of education, we'd be in the same living situation we grew up in.''
He said it was important to him that Navajos remember and embrace their identity and uniqueness of who they are as a people.
''We can become independent and retain our cultural identity,'' he said. ''So that's one thing I try to stress to students, because that's what my parents and grandparents told me, as well. We should continue to use the language and continue to live by what we were taught. If we lose the culture, we're no different than anybody else.''
In his letter to Chief, Yellowhair and Littlehat, Shirley said they represent the fulfillment of the Navajo people's wish to see their children embrace the best of both the Navajo world and the foreigner's world.
''After years of prayer and desire, the Navajo people and the Navajo Nation today are seeing dozens of its young people becoming professionals with Masters and Doctoral degrees,'' he wrote. ''You are at the forefront of this societal change that will serve to lead the Navajo Nation back to the independence we knew as a people so long ago.''