IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Connecting to Place and People: How My Experiences with Native American Communities Motivate My Work

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In this guest blog, Dr. Tabitha Stickel, a second-year postdoctoral research fellow at the Georgia State University (GSU) Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program shares her experiences working with adult education programs in Native American tribal lands and how it has shaped her work and purpose.

Entering Adult Education: Connection to the Land and Peoples of the Southwest

Prior to graduate school, I found work as an adult education teacher at a rural, southwestern community college in the traditional lands of the Diné (Navajo), the Hopi, and the Ndee (Western Apache). This college, which served the indigenous communities, was set in the short-grass prairies, spotted with juniper trees in a land that seemed silent and empty to the untrained eye. But the land was full of life and opportunity, and the students I met gave me new appreciation for the opportunities adult education could provide.

As an adjunct faculty in an adult basic and developmental education program, I traveled several hours each week to teach classes on the Diné and Hopi tribal lands. I was immediately struck by the students’ dedication to their education and personal goals—to be the first in their families to earn a college degree, help their children or grandchildren with homework, find or keep employment, and/or fulfill the promise of completing high school made to themselves or others. 

Challenges in Adult Education for Rural Students

Despite this dedication, adult students face a variety of barriers to attending classes. Adult students often must contend with the challenges of caretaking, work, and transportation—a perennial problem for rural students, as there is no public transportation. Some students were able to carpool, and some of the tribes arranged vans to transport the “closer” students to the campus.

Even when faced with such challenges, students showed up each week. I had students without electricity at home who used their cell phones to access class materials, one of many such examples of the digital divide in rural areas. I had a student who made burritos each week and sold them to raise money for a desk for her schoolwork. These students drove my passion for my work. When students overcome incredible odds for their education, how can an educator do anything other than rise to meet them? Earning an education credential, such as a high school equivalency, could have far-reaching positive outcomes for the students and their families. 

What My Students Taught Me

In addition to learning about the challenges and rewards adult learners face, I also learned the importance of listening to students and checking assumptions. For instance, I had a GED student who was chronically late. One day, I called her because I was frustrated that she was over an hour late, only to learn that she was on her way. In fact, she was walking more than 20 miles to come to class. She had been unable to hitch-hike to class as she normally would. I was completely humbled in that moment and realized that my assumptions were keeping me from understanding her. She ended up earning her GED a month later.

When my students shared their stories, I learned how their lived experiences—including the very land on which they lived—shaped them. When I began to truly listen to these stories and understand their importance, I became a better teacher. And I knew that these stories deserved to be heard and answered with more than I could offer as a single teacher.

Moving Between Two Worlds: Research and Practice

My experiences in the southwest prompted me to attend graduate school and research how to understand, empower, and teach adult learners. In general, however, there is insufficient research on adult education within and for certain populations. I wanted help to address this gap, so I centered my work on identifying culturally relevant themes of belonging for Native adult education students to explore the various pathways along which student belonging might develop.

In 2020, I returned to the adult education program I had worked in to gather stories from the students for my dissertation. I found student stories became intertwined with the pandemic and revealed the extent of the devastation the COVID-19 pandemic was having on the Native American communities and students’ sense of belonging. COVID-19 was making it more difficult for students to balance attending class and providing for their families. It was also making the digital divide even more apparent—as adult education programs transitioned to remote instruction, students had to navigate the realities of participating and belonging in the digital sphere. I further explore these themes in the Coalition on Adult Basic Education’s (COABE) forthcoming special issue on COVIDs effects on adult students.

As with other challenges, these Native communities and students continued to survive and thrive despite the tragedies of COVID-19. The students and staff in the adult education programs in these tribal communities deserve all the recognition in the world for their dedication, their creativity in addressing ever-present and ever-arising challenges, and their persistence.

My own commitment to this endeavor led me to become a postdoctoral fellow in the Georgia State University (GSU) Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program. I hope to soon return to the land and communities that have so integrally changed my life.  

Although I may return with more knowledge of the adult education field and how to facilitate classroom learning, I will occupy not just a “teacher” role but a student one as well, as I have much to learn from the lands, the people, and the experiences they inevitably shape.