From being Navajo to being Indigenous

Carmen Lopez | Navajo | 1994-1997

As a teenager, Carmen admired Dr. Laurie Arviso. Dr. Arviso was the first Navajo woman surgeon, and Carmen was a student at Navajo Preparatory School – the tribal school in Navajo Nation. One day, during Carmen’s junior year, Dr. Arviso visited as a guest speaker. At the time, Carmen thought she wanted to be a doctor. So she listened to Dr. Arviso’s story, and Dr. Arviso talked about Dartmouth College. What stuck with Carmen was that when Dr. Arviso was an undergrad, people told her she could never be a doctor – that she didn’t have the academic ability because she struggled in her classes. But she persisted.

“That story stayed with me,” Carmen said. “College is hard. You might fail, but it's up to you to decide, are you going to pick yourself back up?”

The name Dartmouth stuck in Carmen’s head, and when it came time to apply to college, she looked up Dr. Arviso in the phone book, and called her at Indian Health Services Hospital. She told Dr. Arviso who she was, that she wanted to apply, and asked for any advice. Dr. Arviso encouraged her, told her that Dartmouth has a medical school in addition to undergrad, and told her to try not to get into the dorms by the river – it’s a long cold walk to campus. Carmen always remembers that, because, of course, she did end up living in the River dorms at one point.

During the application process, Carmen wasn’t intimidated. She didn’t necessarily understand what an Ivy League school was. She just thought all colleges were the same, and if someone gets into college, they get into college. For this reason, she didn’t hesitate at all to apply to Dartmouth.

And after she got accepted, she still didn’t really know what Dartmouth was. Her teachers were all so proud, but she remembers hearing one boy saying he got into UMass Dartmouth. She got so excited, she ran up to him and told him they were going to the same school. He had to tell her that Dartmouth College was different. Later, Carmen asked a friend what the difference was.

Starting her freshman year at Dartmouth, she didn’t experience the usual culture shock that Native students experience. When she was a junior in high school, Carmen was one of three students at Navajo prep selected to spend nine weeks at Cushing Academy on the East Coast –  the headmaster at Cushing had struck up a professional relationship with the headmaster at Navajo Prep, and arranged for this program to happen. And that was Carmen’s culture shock; at Cushing, Carmen was homesick, she was much less wealthy than most other students there, and, academically, she was behind everyone else. But she thought, I’m going to use this opportunity to get myself ready for college.

She spent most of her time at Cushing either studying, or at the gym – practicing for her basketball and volleyball teams back home. When she finally got home, her parents asked her how it went. She said it was interesting, she worked hard. She got good grades and made a few friends. Her parents said they were glad, because they were sending her back for her senior year. She was devastated, she didn’t want to go. She wanted to stay home, play for her basketball team, play for her volleyball team. Now she knows, of course, it was the best thing for her to go back to Cushing.

Adjusting to college life after Cushing was relatively pain-free. She made it on the club volleyball team, and she fell in easily with a few Native women she met there. She had to learn little things, like that she needed shower shoes, and how to manage her time now that her days were not structured for her. She had to learn how to build her own schedule, study all the time. But the homesickness wasn’t so bad – at least by then she had learned how to cope.

Carmen does remember being taken aback by NAD politics. For instance, before college, she had never thought much about Columbus day – it was just a day off of school. It was the NADs who taught her what that day meant, it’s implications, its impact on Indigenous people.

“I think that's the change in college, right?” Carmen said. “Your political consciousness is just starting to form. You go from being Navajo, to now becoming Indigenous. Now I've seen other tribal nations.”

Her freshman year, Carmen joined a committee made up of NADs who were responsible for responding to a man who offered one million dollars to the NAP, if only the NAP endorsed the Indian symbol. She remembers being in her friends room, writing up their response to this man.

“We had an F-U response and we were just ripping into them. We had a funny version of what we wanted to say. And then we had the final, professional version that Michael [Hanitchak] had to approve,” Carmen said. “We had a good time expressing our feelings about some alumn trying to bribe us. Just to get those experiences that seem so ridiculous, but it can be so hurtful. But at the same time, you're building your resiliency with other students. To laugh and cry at the same time, and be angry and outraged. You have to do it all at the same time, and bring humor into it to just survive. The experiences that I had, at my time, it was always about the ups and downs.”

Carmen graduated from Dartmouth in 1997, not as a med student, but as a teacher. She got her first teaching position at Cushing Academy, and that’s where she met the founder of College Horizons. In 2009, she stepped in to take over the College Horizons program.

“I really see the impact that these institutions have, and I think it's why I do my work in College Horizons,” Carmen said. “Now I am thirty years out, I can see the impact of what graduates are doing throughout Indian Country. I'm past the stage when I worried that [education] might contribute to brain drain of Indigenous brilliance and excellence – leaving their home communities and possibly not returning. I see now that there’s a return, I see the impact. Whether they're working directly in their tribal community or with a different community, or contributing in a different way. Currently, inequities exist. As an alumn, you don’t want to hear that some of these same things that we went through twenty years ago, students are going through again, still. But I also just think that it is the microcosm of America of the inequities that we continue to move through. I don't know if it's a rite of passage, that's a part that I still philosophize about. I don't know if it's an endorsement, but I will say, Dartmouth would be a place that I would want my children to consider attending.”