Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Inspiring Change

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Inspiring Change

Article excerpt

Carrie Billy, a member of the Navajo Nation, spent most of her early years living on two Native American reservations in Arizona. From kindergarten through high school, though, she never once had a Native teacher.

"I don't think it occurred to us that American Indians could be teachers because we never saw one--we could be the janitors [or] teachers aides," recalls Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC). "In looking back at it now... that's a really sad way to grow up."

But AIHEC represents 37 tribal colleges, which are working to change that, Billy says. "They're trying to make sure that young American Indian or Alaskan Native kids have people who look like them in the classroom--that, to me, is a big change for the better."

But in the communities where Billy grew up, severe poverty and alcoholism were prevalent. This meant that college wasn't a priority for some youth.

Fortunately, Billy had a role model in her mother, one of several adults in her life who attended college. In addition, Billy also pulled from internal strengths. "I think, for some reason, I am one of those people who's just more optimistic--I don't automatically think that something can't be done. I think that it can be done; we just have to plod along until we do it."

When she entered the University of Arizona Billy had aspirations of becoming a sports journalist. However, nearing the end of her undergraduate schooling, she had a change of heart. "I just always felt like there was something more that I could do or that I should do, especially for Navajo [and Native American] people," she says.

Thus, she turned to a career in law. After graduating from Arizona in 1983, she moved on to the Georgetown University Law Center. In the nation's capital, "politics are just part of the daily life," she says, recalling volunteering for several political campaigns as a student.

With the programs public service focus, she also spent time teaching street law to high school students who didn't always have favorable impressions of the legal system. "So to explain how the law works and how to work through it, you can really have a lasting impact on people's lives," she says.

Billy graduated from Georgetown in 1986, with "a sense that [I] can really make a difference in the world."

While serving as a senior staff member to U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Billy was afforded her first opportunity to work with tribal colleges. Among her many contributions, she helped establish a bill to secure ongoing support for the Institute of American Indian Arts, the country's only college that's dedicated to promoting Native American art. …

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