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Bringing Together a Heritage and a Career

Graduate student and instructor Crystal Lee started a nonprofit organization to pair American Indian youngsters and mentors.
People  |  Jun 23, 2011  |  By Greg Lacour

The medicine man was dying. He didn't know it yet. Neither did his family. But everyone could see that Justin Lewis was in declining health. His illness cast a heavy shadow over that Thanksgiving in 2005 when his family gathered at his daughter's home in Dilkon, Ariz., deep within the Navajo Nation.

It was a rough time for granddaughter Crystal Lee, too. She was 25, working as a researcher for the National Institutes of Health branch office in Phoenix. But she was torn between pursuing a graduate degree, perhaps a medical degree, and coming home to "The Res," the Navajo Reservation, where the full-blooded Navajo woman had been born and raised. She had never felt comfortable at Arizona State, where she earned her undergraduate degree; compared to The Res, where she treasured the support of her family and culture, it was an alien planet.

Lee practically worshiped her grandfathers, both medicine men in the Navajo tradition. And she was in Phoenix, a five-hour drive from home, working as a low-level government researcher while her beloved grandfather wasted away. It was wrong. She belonged back on The Res with her family, with her people. She cried her eyes out to her grandfather after dinner that Thanksgiving. She would forget about grad school and come home.

"He sat me down -- he was speaking Navajo, I was speaking English -- and he said, 'My health is not so good right now. I don't know how long I'll be here on this Earth. It's a part of life. People pass on. But remember that when I leave this Earth, all the prayers and songs I sang for you on this Earth will still be here to guide you. You get that degree.'"

Lee paused in her remembrance, collecting herself. Her grandfather died of lung cancer at age 80, undiagnosed until death, in March 2006. "That's what keeps me strong and keeps me going in whatever endeavors I try."

She earned another degree -- her master's, from UNLV in 2007 -- and is working toward that doctorate in public health from UNLV's School of Community Health Sciences. Part of her interest in public health comes from her grandfathers -- she decided in third grade that she wanted to work in medicine -- but it stems, too, from her intimate knowledge of the health-related difficulties common to Native Americans: unusually high rates of diabetes and alcoholism, among other diseases.

Compounding that is the uneasy relationship between Native Americans and higher education. America's indigenous peoples have some of the nation's lowest rates of college enrollment and graduation. The conflict that dogged Lee in her college years drags down other indigenous students, too. Culture shock can overwhelm an 18-year-old student who's never known anything but life on a reservation.

So last year, Lee, now 30, launched something wholly original with nothing more than the money in her pocket: United Natives, the first online mentoring program designed specifically for Native American students.

The organization pairs Native American college students of any age with faculty members of Native American extraction, regardless of where the students attend or where the mentors teach. The mentors can help students work through the academic and social problems unique to Native Americans and nearly impossible to address on most college campuses.

"A lot of Native American students drop out because the support's not there. Many of them are first-generation college, and their parents don't understand what they're going through," Lee says. "There's a big cultural gap as well. These students feel like there's no place in the community for them."

Lee officially launched United Natives as a nonprofit in January 2010. But she's spent the first 18 months recruiting mentors from across the country and setting up its structure and additional funding from private donations and grants. "It's finally ready to go," she says.

The program will start in earnest in the fall, with a cohort of about 15 mentors and students from UNLV's Center for Academic Enrichment & Outreach -- where mentor Kyle Ethelbah, a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, directs the center's Adult Educational Services program.

As it develops, United Natives will fill an important void, says Michelle Chino, the environmental and occupational health professor who's overseeing Lee's doctoral work. A full-blooded Laguna Pueblo member, Chino has signed on to United Natives as a mentor, too.

She isn't surprised that Lee took the problem seriously enough to do something about it. "She just does these things. She comes to me and says, 'Oh, by the way, I started this nonprofit, would you be a mentor?' And I'm like, 'Whoa, wait a minute, back up!'" Chino says with a laugh. "She's just so passionate about anything and everything that can advance native peoples, especially native young people."

Lee can't help but think of her younger self, and how much a thoughtful and experienced Native American mentor might have guided her through her difficult adjustment to academic life. But now Lee thinks she's finally achieved what she's sought since she left The Res: a union of her heritage and career.

"It makes me feel like a proud mom, even though I'm not a mom," Lee says. "It doesn't feel like work to me. My elders and the people who have passed on had this vision for me. My grandfather always had this vision for me. Now, their vision and what I wanted are coming together."