The Pathways to the Education Sciences Program was designed to inspire students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in doctoral study to pursue careers in education research. Pathways Alumna, Nia Gregory, is currently the Executive Director of Education of the Wilton Rancheria Tribe. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we asked Director Gregory, who is of Cherokee and Yuchi descent, to discuss her career journey. This is what she shared with us.
How did you become interested in a career in education?
Honestly, it was a long journey to where I am. I changed my major three times in undergrad from nursing to microbiology and then finishing with my bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies with a concentration in Native American studies. I was so disappointed with the lack of access to nursing programs and the increase of unhealthy competition; I had a perfect GPA and TEAS test scores, but I was denied for 3 years! That’s a long time for someone without many resources to stay in school. I switched to microbiology with the intent to teach. However, this was the first time I experienced how chilly the climate can be for women in the science fields. I felt that no matter how great I did, my professors gave credit to my male counterparts. Then, I took an elective class with the Department of Ethnic Studies, and I fell in love with the inclusion, transparency, and truth of it all. Never had I experienced the privilege of being taught my own history by people who represented my culture. I realized that I wanted to be that representation for others; I wanted to work towards correcting the narrative for Native peoples.
How did participation in the Pathways to the Education Sciences training program at California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State) shape your career journey?
The mentors in the program and the work experience gave me a clearer vision of how I could support Native students in the future. It also helped me prepare for graduate school and keep me on track. My mentor, Heidi Sarabia, made sure I was passionate about my research, which I carry with me today. She also taught me different aspects of the research process, including the IRB process, which gave me the confidence to conduct research during my graduate studies. As part of the Pathways program, we also had internship opportunities, where I was able to see the wonderful work that the College of Education at Sacramento State was doing. I learned many skills with this internship with the Capitol Education Institute under the amazing leadership of Pia Wong. I was also able to pick up an exceptionally valuable skill through Pathways Director Jana Noel’s grant writing workshop. However, I couldn’t help the Native community directly in that position. I decided I wanted to work closer with Native youth, so I applied for a position at Wilton Rancheria’s Department of Education.
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome the challenge?
Geez, it’s hard to pick just one! For a long time, it felt like every challenge was piling up, and barriers were getting higher. I was overwhelmed having to navigate college alone with limited resources. I dropped out of college and felt so defeated. I have always struggled with my mental health; regulating medications for bipolar disorder is exceptionally tiring. It wasn’t necessarily a specific tangible thing rather than a long slump. I wasn’t medically regulated, and I wasn’t treating myself or those around me well. In 2016, I took care of my father and watched him quickly decline and slip away from me. When he passed, it hit me hard, and I felt lost and knew I needed to make some moves. I decided to go back to school. Returning to college a bit older and more mature was a great experience. All in all, it took me 9 years to finish my undergraduate degree, but I’m grateful I was able to experience college in a healthier mindset with a wider worldview.
As the Executive Director of Education for the Wilton Rancheria Tribe, what advice would you give education researchers who wish to work with tribal communities?
The Native community is reasonably wary of researchers, especially research coming from outside of the community. So being transparent about your intention with data collection and interest in our community is key. Recognize that the community is not a subject of study, and it is not the community’s responsibility to aid in their research. As an educator, I feel it’s important to correct the erasure narrative of indigenous peoples in this country. However, I also feel it is not Tribal communities’ responsibility to catch people up to speed on the Native American experience. If somebody wishes to work with a Tribal community, they should take the time to learn about that community before reaching out to Tribes. I would also recommend going through a Tribal government or Tribal sponsored program. Recognize that you may be turned down, and the correct response is to graciously accept that. Be patient because forming this connection and trust takes time. Like my momma says, “your urgency is not my emergency.” I would also like to leave readers with a resource, a book by Devon A Mihesuah, So You Want to Write About American Indians?
How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of Native American students and researchers?
I know it sounds very simple, but by making space. Not just for the individual but for the worldview of Native people. When I was in graduate school, I struggled with getting books and literature from Native authors in our university library. I was advocating for a Native student space on top of correcting professors when they were blatantly continuing the erasure narrative of Native peoples. Sometimes, good intentions aren’t enough. Educators of all stages of learning need cultural competency training. We are often an asterisk or marked as “other” or often “too few to include” in data and graphs. Even well-intentioned research on race and ethnicity is exclusive and doesn’t make space for the Native community.
What advice would you give Native American students and scholars who wish to pursue a career in education research?
That it’s okay to be mad but use that to turn it into passion. I was frustrated for so long with trying to find information or fighting a system that only values certain sources. Also, know that there are people out there that know the barriers you are facing. I have reached out to Native authors and researchers, and of all the people I have contacted responded with empathy and provided me with resources. Don’t feel like you need to reinvent the wheel; reach out to Native educators and fellow students. Take Native studies courses. Get involved in a Native club for support. Talk to your professors. I cannot stress that enough!
Remember that your work will help the next generation, and then work for seven generations ahead. You are a living embodiment of what it means to resist and be resilient. You are your ancestors’ dreams come true.
All my relations
Nia Gregory is the Executive Director of Education of the Wilton Rancheria Tribe and focuses on the promotion of academic excellence of the Tribe.
This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. As part of our Native American Heritage Month blog series, we are focusing on Native American researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of Native American students.
This guest blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program.