A place to call home

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Student organization leaves its mark in the community.

After spending four years in the military, Jonathan Yellowhair returned home to Flagstaff seeking new direction and purpose. Yellowhair applied to attend Northern Arizona University, looking for a means to secure his future, but also for ways to get involved in the community he had left. During his search, he was referred to the Connecting Higher Education Indigenously (CHEI) Club, a group founded in 2009 that promotes community growth, student support, and the recruitment of indigenous students. CHEI helped confirm Yellowhair’s decision to attend the university.

Erin O’Keefe, president of the CHEI Club and a first-year graduate student pursuing her Master of Arts in Sustainable Communities, persuaded Yellowhair, who is of Navajo descent, to join the organization and take advantage of the opportunities available to indigenous students.

“I’ve really been trying to work with communities outside of the university and examining our effort with other tribes and other schools in the area,” O’Keefe says. “A lot of our members volunteer at Killip Elementary School, and I’m always trying to look for those different connections and different ways that we can expand, share and grow beyond campus.”

Giving back

One of the CHEI Club’s current projects is a mentoring program run out of Killip Elementary School. Club members invite younger students to shadow them and to ask questions about how higher education affects their lives. By demonstrating what is expected of university students, club members seek to help younger students discover the importance and value of attending a university. Yellowhair says getting involved with students at an early age is integral in maintaining discipline and instilling in them the desire to pursue a higher education. 

“We want to help and teach them that there is more out there to do,” he says. “We want to show them there are extracurricular activities you can do instead of going out and getting in trouble. We’ve had them shadow us twice already, and the kids seem to really enjoy it.”

The CHEI Club also works with the Student-to-Student Connection: Shadowing Programs, a program similar to the Killip Elementary mentoring program that is run out of the Native American Cultural Center. Many of CHEI’s members serve as mentors for the program, and provide campus tours and insight into what to expect from life at the university.

“We bring Native high school students on campus for a day and pair them with Native mentors from Northern Arizona University,” O’Keefe says. “They can ask questions about anything they want to know.”

Expanding its reach

When they aren’t giving back to the local community, the CHEI Club holds events that allow students to become more involved on campus and learn about new cultures.

One event the CHEI Club emphasizes is “talking circles” – in these circles, students discuss a multitude of topics, including environmental issues and cultural happenings in the community. While the groups are currently comprised of mostly Native students, O’Keefe’s goal is to include more students of non-Native descent in the future.

“We’ll often split off into these smaller talking circles and have a dialogue before bringing it back to the group,” O’Keefe says. “It is just a way to engage with other non-Native students and community members, as well as Native students.”

On campus, the CHEI Club is known for its involvement in a variety of causes and events, including the Indigenous Bash, Relay for Life, and the Stew Fest, but they are expanding their appeal through a new tradition that shares the holiday spirit with American troops overseas.

The club collects food, clothing, and other donations before sending these contributions as care packages to servicemen in the Middle East. Yellowhair came up with the idea to help troops enjoy the holidays while away from home.       

“Sometimes that’s the only real thing that gets you through your time over there,” Yellowhair says. “You come back from a day’s work, a patrol or something, and the only thing that will get you through is reading a letter from your family or friends.”

O’Keefe believes these events and fundraisers benefit those they are helping and allow the students to have a better understanding of the world around them. 

“We’re just trying to expand, within Flagstaff, to other indigenous cultures all over the country, and even throughout the world,” O’Keefe says. “We’re really just trying to get out there and broaden our own knowledge about indigenous cultures and communities. Doing so allows us to create this really tight network here, where we can offer each other support through social events, and also academically.”