Navajo Tech is the first of tribal universities to offer a PhD

A university on the largest Native American reservation in the US launched its accredited doctoral program, becoming the first of…

A university on the largest Indian reservation in the US launched its accredited doctoral program, becoming the first of more than 30 accredited tribal colleges and universities across the country to offer such a high standard.

The program at Navajo Technical University will be dedicated to preserving the Diné culture and language. Diné is the Navajo word meaning “the people” and is commonly what tribesmen call themselves.

A party is scheduled for April at the Crownpoint campus in western New Mexico, and the school has already begun accepting applications for the fall semester.

The offering marks a milestone for the university, which already has more than 30 diploma and certificate programs in science, technology, engineering, business and liberal arts, said Navajo Tech President Elmer Guy.

Guy told The Associated Press on Friday that he believes the program in which students earn a Ph.D. in Diné Culture and language Sustainability will have a profound impact on the future of the tribe’s language and culture. He said he was excited to see how students shape their dissertations.

The idea was to create a program that would create employment and change for Navajo communities on the reservation stretching into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

“I thought it would be important to make that connection,” Guy said, explaining that it goes a step beyond tribal leaders’ call for their people to learn the language and stay engaged with their culture. “Individuals get a degree and they become professionals. You have to make it applicable. By making it more meaningful, people get interested in it.”

The effort is paying off. About 20 students have applied so far and will compete for five coveted spots in the inaugural class, said Wafa Hozien, an administrator who helped create the program.

In collaboration with other academic institutions and community partners, the doctoral program was developed with the help of tribal elders, university professors and language experts. Community-based research and internships will be part of the curriculum, providing students with hands-on experience that they can apply in the real world.

Guy said he’s hopeful this inspires other tribal colleges and universities to create their own programs.

Hozien said Navajo Tech’s program represents a paradigm shift in that learning through a Diné lens — with culture and language — creates leaders who can advocate for their people in areas such as the judiciary, education, land management, business, technology and healthcare .

Guy said the university’s work to train court reporters to document Navajo testimony and translators to help read ballots during election season has already addressed some of the pressing needs within communities.

The opportunities will be even greater as students earn doctorates, he said.

“They will be part of the problem solving,” said Guy. “These students have energy and creativity, and it’s our job to give them the tools.”


Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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