Education & Service 

Embracing her home

College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Department of Geography Planning and Recreation First generation Master of Science Native American Online Parks and Recreation Management

In pursuit of an online master’s, National Park Service employee Kelkiyana Yazzie improves the national monument in her backyard.

When Kelkiyana Yazzie was a young girl in Shonto, Arizona, she didn’t give the stunning scenery and Ancestral Puebloans’ centuries-old cliff dwellings of Navajo National Monument much thought as she passed by almost daily in her school bus rides.

The park was five miles away from her home and her great-grandfather became one of the first Navajo park rangers there back in 1952. Still, she wondered, why did people visit from around the globe for, as she put it, “a bunch of old houses and canyons? There’s nothing to see here.”

That view changed when she took part in Youth Conservation Corps the summer after she graduated from high school.

“I saw these visitors from all over the world coming to our park,” Kelkiyana said. “They had this genuine interest in the land, the history, the people who live there. And it just really, honestly, shocked me.”

She got her bachelor’s degree—the first college graduate in her family—then returned home and landed a job at Navajo National Monument through the National Park Service’s Pathways Internship Program. Kelkiyana’s passion for her internationally known backyard now runs as deep as her roots there. She is a fourth-generation employee at the monument, and she wants every visitor’s experience at the park to be authentic. 

“I want to help them learn more about this area,” she said about the park established in 1909. “It’s big to just share my Indigenous heritage with people from all backgrounds and ages. I always ask them, ‘What’s your prior knowledge of Indigenous people?’ And they say, ‘Oh, John Wayne movies.’ So I really want to help get them out of that stereotypical mindset of Indigenous people. And I get to do that through the park.”

Discovering online education

To enhance her ability to do that and pursue further leadership opportunities, Kelkiyana considered graduate school. When she began looking, Kelkiyana was sure she would have to commit to leaving home again. She didn’t realize an online degree was an option until she corresponded with Frank Vernon, graduate coordinator for Northern Arizona University’s Parks and Recreation Management (PRM) program within the Department of Geography, Planning, and Recreation.

The PRM Master of Science degree at NAU provides flexibility and a learning community for Kelkiyana and others in her online cohort who are spread across the country so that they can align their academic knowledge with professional goals.

“I was heavily interested in going to San Francisco,” she said. “But that would have taken me away from the reservation, and I’m really, really close with my family. I live with my 90-year-old great-grandma. So I was like, ‘No, I can’t leave! I want somewhere nearby.’

“Once I found out about the online program, I got to meet Frank in person. That’s what really helped my decision. He said, ‘We can work around your employment. You can even make your thesis and your capstone project around your work.’”

Kelkiyana credits Vernon for contacting her quickly when she reached out to NAU for information and for changing her view of the possibilities of online education. She initially feared having no interaction with her professors or peers.

Once I found out about the online program, I got to meet graduate coordinator Frank Vernon in person. That’s what really helped my decision.

Even before the pandemic began, Vernon assured her that in addition to readings, there would be in-person conferences, Skype videos, and the Microsoft Teams app that would help her network with other grad students, many of whom are also federal employees.

A capstone project with impact

Compared to Kelkiyana’s great-grandfather, park staff these days is largely Native American and they share their perspectives with visitors. But she knows at any park, there is limited time to converse with guests and to clear up common misperceptions—that Navajo National Monument is not Monument Valley, for example, and that the park’s namesake tribe is not the only history to be told here.

For her capstone project, Kelkiyana planned a survey of park visitors and interviews with Native American residents and scholars. COVID-19 altered those plans somewhat as the Navajo Nation implemented stringent stay-at-home measures and National Park Service sites were closed to tourism.

She still has interviewed park service employees and tribal members through phone and video interviews to stay on track toward her degree. Her goal is to revamp the park’s interpretive materials, both online and in print, to be more interactive, relevant, and comprehensive in representing the different cultures that have inhabited the region.

While Kelkiyana visits her sister—a sophomore criminology major—at NAU’s Flagstaff campus, her sense of place at Navajo National Monument will remain long after graduation. She expects to have a big impact as a leader for years to come with the help of her NAU master’s degree.

My career aspiration is being Superintendent of Navajo National Monument.

Kelkiyana Yazzie, Master of Science candidate, Parks and Recreation Management

“I plan to be at Navajo National Monument forever,” she said. “I really love the park and all the interactions with visitors who think this is a hidden gem! I just see so much that could make the visitor experience better. I feel like our park deserves a superintendent who is 100 percent about the park and its employees. My career aspiration is being Superintendent of Navajo National Monument.”

Student photographers at the Grand Canyon.