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Staying the course

Derwin Begay proves college founders' plans work

DURANGO, Colo. - At Fort Lewis College in Durango, first-generation college student Derwin Begay marched with the 2008 graduating class April 26. Begay, a double major in Southwest studies and U.S. history, started classes at Fort Lewis in the fall of 2005. He graduated with a bachelor's degree after two years and a trimester.

Just the fact that he earned his undergraduate degree in such a short period of time is something to be celebrated. Today's college students often take more than four years to graduate. At a meeting in mid-April, the college president stated that retention is a problem among Native students who enroll at Fort Lewis College.

Many factors have contributed to Begay's accomplishments. For starters, he came to Fort Lewis with two degrees in hand. In 2004, he graduated with an associate degree in liberal arts from the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute located in Albuquerque, N.M., and in 2005, he graduated with an associate degree in Dine' studies from Dine' College. In fact, he followed the exact steps the tribal college founders meant for students when they established the tribal college movement.

Tribal college leaders extol the benefit of tribal college education; they say students who transfer from tribal colleges to other colleges or universities do better.

Begay's success at Fort Lewis certainly attests to this. He brims with self-confidence. He diligently participated as student representative to the Fort Lewis College American Indian Studies Advisory Board for two years, during which time he always offered his honest opinions. He voluntarily took time to consult with students and faculty to advocate for changes on behalf of all students. He was in the college's Native American Honor Society.

He never hesitated to speak Dine' to express his most heartfelt opinions when in the company of Dine' speakers - a rarity today, when so few Dine' students can speak their own language. He is focused on his Dine' identity and returning to help his own people one day.

Tina Deschenie: How do you identify yourself?

Begay: My clans are Ashiihi [Salt Clan], Ma'ii Deeshgiizhnii [Coyote Pass White Corn People of Jemez], Honaghaani [One Who Walks Around] and Bihaatl'aadaalc'hi'i [Red Cheek Bone People]. I am from Ch'ezhin T'ahdee' T'iisanoolyelidee' [Teesto, Ariz.].

Deschenie: What has your FLC college education provided you?

Begay: I had an opportunity to further my education here, and I was able to develop as a person - culturally and academically - through relations with people of diverse backgrounds. I believe I have grown as a Dine' person living in an ever-changing society and my identity has developed more.

Deschenie: Do you have any regrets?

Begay: I wish I had more time to build more relations with faculty members and other students. I'd focus on retention of Native students.

Deschenie: What's next for you?

Begay: Next year, I hope to be in a graduate school on the East Coast, studying U.S. history [focusing on social movements from the end of the 19th century to the present] and preparing for law school. I want to study areas that will benefit the Navajo people.

Deschenie: What frustrated you as a student?

Begay: My ability to properly manage my time.

Deschenie: How has college education changed you?

Begay: The most important change I see in myself is that I ask more questions about concerns facing our people and society in general - political and cultural. I now question the motivations and underlying dynamics before making assumptions about situations.

Deschenie: Who are your mentors?

Begay: My parents, Abraham and Rose Ann Begay. Their love, wisdom and courage have instilled confidence and determination in me to continue my academic endeavors and to accomplish what they never had an opportunity to do. I believe that through me, they are able to experience higher education.

Deschenie: After you complete your educational goals, what then?

Begay: I believe the best way for me to contribute and make change will be by living and working among the Dine' people. I would love to one day work at Dine' College in Tsaile, Ariz., to promote, preserve and protect the philosophy of Sa'ah Naaghai Bik'eh Hozhoon. The college is building the future by offering education that will better benefit Navajo youth for future generations. I would love to be a part of such a wonderful family of educators.

While Begay is fulfilling the mission of Dine' College, he is also fulfilling a common plea of Dine' elders: ''Meet me on this life journey and take over.'' The saying implies the circle of responsibility is never broken - youth are to take up where their elders leave off. They must always be mindful of coming home.

Tina Deschenie, Dine'/Hopi, has been editor of the Tribal College Journal since 2006. She is the alumni representative to the Fort Lewis College American Indian studies advisory board.