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Virginia Tech

Nizhoni Tallas, a junior in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, is the first Virginia Tech student to receive a Udall Undergraduate Scholarship in the tribal policy category. 

These national scholarships are awarded annually by the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation to students who demonstrate exceptional leadership, a dedication to public service, and a commitment to environmental issues, particularly as they relate to Native American communities. Virginia Tech’s 14 previous Udall Scholars were in the environment category.

Tallas, who grew up in northeastern Arizona on the Navajo Reservation, says her passion for the environment started at a young age.

“Growing up, I lived in a very rural area,” Tallas said. “There was a mesa right by my house and a canyon in my backyard, so just having the outdoors at my fingertips made it more accessible. I didn’t have internet or anything, and there wasn’t much to do except to go outside and explore. My love for the environment started there, just hiking around and picking up plants and seeing the animals that lived in the desert.”

Tallas’ love for the outdoors has guided her studies at Virginia Tech, where she is majoring in natural resources conservation in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.

“There are a broad range of environmental issues that I’ve seen growing up on the Navajo Nation,” Tallas said. “I’m taking courses at Virginia Tech to understand these issues and see what I can do to help. One aspect I’m particularly interested in is learning more about environmental policy and planning and how that influences tribal governments and what occurs in those communities.”

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Tallas drew on both her interests and her education during a five-day conference with fellow scholarship recipients in Tucson, Arizona. She worked on case studies while learning new ways to collaborate on environmental and social justice challenges, and cultivated connections with professionals working on land management and tribal issues.

Though Tallas admits that she felt somewhat isolated when she first arrived in Blacksburg, she soon found a community with Native at Virginia Tech, a student group that aims to increase awareness and visibility for American Indians and other indigenous people on campus.

“Coming to Virginia Tech was different,” Tallas explained. “At home I was always surrounded by people who spoke my language and understood when I talked about my culture and various tribal issues. Getting involved with Native at VT was awesome because I got to meet other Native students at Tech and form a community that I was able to have these conversations with.”

“Nizhoni stands out as one of our leaders on campus,” said Melissa Faircloth, director of Virginia Tech’s American Indian and Indigenous Community Center. “We’re lucky to have her and we’re proud of everything she’s doing. I know that Nizhoni is a student who will take her science background and apply it to some of the challenges faced within indigenous communities.”

Indeed, Tallas is already tackling some of those challenges. In high school, she created a prototype to heat water for the people in her community who still live in traditional houses. With Faircloth, Tallas presented her project at the American Indian Women of Proud Nations conference in 2018.

Tallas was one of four Hokies this past year to receive a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, which she used to study at Virginia Tech’s Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, during the spring 2019 semester. She also received a Beyond Boundaries scholarship, which supports students from underserved communities among others, and has served as an ambassador for the program, speaking about her experiences as a Native student studying in a STEM field.

Looking forward, Tallas hopes that she will be able to utilize her experiences and knowledge to better serve the Navajo community.

“I’d love to be serving the Navajo community five to 10 years from now, building my career around the needs of the community and figuring out what the priorities are and how to work with them,” Tallas explained. “I’d like to contribute to the conservation of our natural resources and help motivate indigenous students to pursue higher education.”