ANCHORAGE, Alaska-The 37th Annual National Indian Education Association (NIEA) Convention, held Oct. 19-22, was attended by more than 2,000 individuals-several hundred of whom were students. Attendees were able to choose from 175 workshops and forums, 130 exhibitors and four general assemblies.
Sophomore Crystal Carr, a math major enrolled at Diné College in Tsaile, was named the first Miss NIEA Ambassador on Oct. 21, 2006.
"NIEA is so pleased to have crowned Crystal Carr as the first Miss NIEA Ambassador," Toni Tsa-Toke (Miss NIEA Committee and 2006 NIEA board member) said on Feb. 1 during an e-mail interview.
"She exemplifies strong values in academics as well as maintaining her traditional tribal ways. I do not believe in chance or coincidence. I do believe that God has a special purpose for everyone and Crystal Carr has a very special purpose in leadership and service."
Carr, who is from Winslow, has distinguished herself as the student body president at Diné College. Michele Spencer, Carr's student advisor, nominated her for the honor.
"Crystal joined the Diné College Knowledge Bowl Team to compete at the 2006 American Indian Higher Education Consortium Student Conference in Green Bay, Wisc." Spencer said. [AIHEC was founded in the 1980s to pool resources between tribal colleges]
"The team I coached did very well. During the conference Crystal got interested in running for AIHEC Student Congress Southwest Regional Representative position and got votes. Crystal also ran for the Associated Student of Diné College, and again she was voted in," Spencer explained.
According to Spencer, Carr delivered a very successful campaign speech.
"She expressed sincere passion for the Diné College campus and her involvement with the AIHEC Student Congress." Spencer said. "She focused her speech on improving campus life by better informing and involving students, fostering a better relationship between the college and the students it serves."
Spencer described Carr as a student involved not only in college organizations, but in her community as well. Spencer nominated Carr for the first Miss NIEA Ambassador title because she was convinced Carr demonstrated the abilities and qualifications for the title.
Carr also advocated stronger ties between student groups and organizations, Spencer said. "My advisor and me were preparing for our AIHEC Student Congress fall meeting when she asked me to run," Carr explained. "The NIEA and AIHEC conventions were both taking place in Alaska around the same time."
Carr said that the position also offered a scholarship-an attractive offer to a college student needing to pay for her education. But the knowledge that this would be the first year for the pageant was also inspiring.
"It was exciting-I thought to myself, 'this is history,'-the first Miss NIEA." Carr said that she considers the title as a once -in-a-lifetime honor.
"It's overwhelming. Sometimes I can't believe it," Carr said. "Today, it is exciting and invigorating to represent Native American education across the United States. I am truly proud to advocate for our education. We have come a long way to set the standards for future generations, while preserving our Native American philosophies.
Her title has given her a sense of responsibility to contribute to the education and well-being of fellow Native American students, Carr said.
"My involvement with the NIEA allows me to consider, organize and network a chain of goals set to benefit Navajo youth and Native American youth as a whole," Carr added.
An oft-heard plea from Navajo elders and tribal leaders to potential college students is an encouragement to go out into the world and obtain an education, then return to assist their own people. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way.
"The young people who are educated would like to bring their skills back to the reservation to help the population as a whole, but find barriers between them and the elders, generations before them, and others who just simply oppose," Carr said. "Of course as Native Americans, we are taught to have a certain amount of respect for our elders. Honoring that with the desire to benefit change is sometimes impossible. However, if the youth realize and are capable of acknowledging the understanding of how the elders and generations before them think and use that to steer towards change, they are both equally represented in a better future."
Carr observes that some young Navajo do not wish to live on the reservation, while others who have the passion to make beneficial change for their people.
"I'd say one thing Navajo youth should realize is that the Diné people and the land is not just 'nothing.' It is a unique place and atmosphere to experience. Nowhere else in the world will you find a home and value than here on the reservation," Carr said. "Pride of who you are takes you far...to a better understanding of life and wisdom. You can't change who you are, but you can plan who you want to be."
Carr believes she is still too young to say she has had a "greatest moment" outside of being with her family. She also identifies herself as both the greatest obstacle in achieving her educational goals and her own inspiration to do so.
"Sometimes I undermine myself as an individual," Carr confessed. "Sometimes I 'overmine' myself. In my busiest days I have to remind myself, 'you can do it'-or 'it's not all about you.' Also, keeping everything in balance is an issue. I have to consider my own values as well [as those] of others-my family and friends, my school and work-they all need time. I think I'm progressing at giving them all equal attention and time.
"I've learned early that my education will take me far, which it is doing, but there is one person who I don't want to disappoint," Carr added. "She is strong and doesn't let anyone push her down. When she says she is going to do something she does it. She is my mom. Though she may not realize the impact she made on my life, she is the one person who challenges and loves me at the same time."
Carr will soon travel to Washington, D.C., to attend the 2007 AIHEC winter meeting with the Tribal College Presidents and AIHEC Student Congress.
"Crystal has the ability to lead to greater and better things," Spencer said. "She works closely with administrators and public officials to improve campuses for all students. She will be visiting Capitol Hill to lobby on behalf of Diné College as well as the other 35 tribal colleges and universities." This is an important visit, according to Carr.
"We as students are to present our support for funding of tribal colleges to Congress, [members of which] would like to hear reaction and testimony from the students-not so much the college presidents," Carr said. "It gives them a chance to see from the students' perspective."
Other individual honored during the October convention included grant recipients Anna Yazzie (Navajo) who is seeking an associates degree at Phoenix College in Phoenix, Jennifer Jackson (Navajo), who is working on her bachelor's degree at Arizona State University in Tempe, and master's student Funston Whiteman (Navajo/Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe of Oklahoma) who is attending the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla. The theme of the conference was Completing the Circle of Knowledge.
The NIEA also elected its 2007 Board President, Dr. Willard S. Gilbert (Hopi), a professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, and Dr. Pauline M. Begay (Navajo) was selected to serve as treasurer. Begay is the Superintendent of Schools for Apache County in St. Johns.