A university on the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. launched its accredited doctoral program, becoming the first among more than 30 accredited tribal colleges and universities across the country to offer such a high-level degree.
The program at Navajo Technical University will be dedicated to sustaining Dine culture and language. Dine is the Navajo word meaning 'the people' and is commonly what tribal members call themselves.
A celebration is planned on the Crownpoint campus in western New Mexico in April, and the school already started accepting applications for the fall semester.
The offering marks a milestone for the university, which already has more than 30 degree and certificate programs spanning science, technology, engineering, business and liberal arts, Navajo Tech President Elmer Guy said.
Guy told The Associated Press on Friday that he believes the program in which students will receive a Ph.D. in Dine Culture and Language Sustainability will have a profound impact on the future of the tribe's language and culture. He said he's excited to see how students shape their dissertations.
The idea was to create a program that would lead to employment opportunities and effect change for Navajo communities on the reservation that stretches into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
'I thought it would be important to make that connection,' Guy said, explaining that it's a step beyond the call by tribal leaders for their people to learn the language and stay engaged with their culture. 'Individuals will get a degree and they'll be professionals. You have to make it applicable. By making it more meaningful, people will have an interest in it.'
The effort is paying off. About 20 students have applied so far and will be vying for five coveted spots in the inaugural class, said Wafa Hozien, an administrator who helped with the program's creation.
A collaboration with other academic institutions and community partners, the doctoral program was developed with the help of tribal elders, university professors and linguistic experts. Community-based research and internships will be part of the curriculum so students gain practical experience they can apply in the real world.
Guy said he's hopeful this inspires other tribal colleges and universities to create their own programs.
Hozien said Navajo Tech's program represents a paradigm shift in that learning through a Dine lens - with culture and language - creates leaders who can advocate for their people in the judicial system, education, land management, business, technology and health care, for example.
Guy said the work done by the university to train court reporters to document Navajo testimony and translators to help with reading ballots during election season already has addressed some of the pressing needs within communities.
The possibilities will be even greater as students earn doctoral degrees, he said.
'They will be part of solving problems,' Guy said. 'These students have energy and creativity, and our job is to give them the tools.'