Leander Yazzie called his auntie with the good news. “She had a very tired voice,” he said. Yazzie had just received his letter of acceptance into the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership (Ed.D.) at UW Tacoma. “I was still in the Army then and had just gotten off a twenty-four hour shift,” said Yazzie. “I chatted with her through my car speaker. She said, ‘That’s really good, son, I wish you well.’”
Yazzie’s auntie passed away two months later. “When I graduated high school she told me in front of the rest of the family, ‘don’t be a statistic, overcome those barriers,’” said Yazzie. Those words resonated. Yazzie earned two bachelor degrees from Arizona State University, one in Sociology, the other in American Indian Studies. He received a master’s degree in Human Relations from the University of Oklahoma.
Yazzie grew up in Fort Defiance, Arizona in the Navajo Nation. He’d always been interested in school but his passion for higher education took root as a teenager. “I remember my sister being in a college prep program one summer while she was in high school,” said Yazzie. “I saw some of the paperwork and pictures and was curious to know more.”
This inquisitiveness led Yazzie to sign up for programs that prepared him for college. “I was always in some kind of summer enrichment program,” he said. The preparation paid off. Yazzie finished high school and went straight to college. Once there, he considered dropping out to join the Marines. “I just felt like I wanted to have that experience,” he said. “I wanted to test my physical abilities in a military setting.” Yazzie talked to his mother and she gave a provisional okay. “I had to finish my degree first,” he said.
Yazzie spent ten years in the U.S. Army. His sojourn around the world got him thinking about issues related to race and social justice. Yazzie’s thirst for knowledge spurred him to earn a master’s, an achievement he once thought impossible. “I wasn’t going to do the master’s,” he said. “But as time went on, I started learning things. I started learning how processes go and how different systems work and was like ‘I might need to go a little further.’”
A master’s and two bachelor’s degrees weren’t enough for Yazzie. He enrolled in the Ed.D. program in 2013. Soon after, he took a position project management position at Green River College. He has since switched roles and now serves as a completion advisor at the college. “I’m helping students overcome barriers whether that’s childcare, financial resources or even homelessness,” said Yazzie. “I’ve started to view my work as a way of understanding how we can get more students to finish school regardless of their socioeconomic background.”
Students in the Ed.D. program are required to write a dissertation. Yazzie focused his on enhancing American Indian Studies within the Washington State community college system. “There’s no real story for Native people in the current curriculum,” he said.
Getting more indigenous people in higher education is one of Yazzie’s passions. “I want to encourage Native people to get excited about college,” he said. “I want them to picture themselves in these institutions that primarily report Native students as a mere one percent of the student population.”
Yazzie understands something about education and credentials, that having the title "Doctor" attached to his name carries a certain weight. “I have expertise and first-hand knowledge that I can use to influence decision making,” he said. “I’m having more conversations with college administration and telling them what Native students need to be successful in higher education.
Yazzie plans to stay in higher education and hopes one day to advance indigenous knowledge within the current system. He is the first Navajo to receive a doctoral degree in education from the University of Washington, but he isn’t the first person in his family with an advanced degree. “My auntie was the first one in the family to earn a master’s,” said Yazzie. “My niece recently completed her medical degree. I tease her all the time about finishing before I did.”
The hooding ceremony for Ed.D. graduates took place on June 7. Yazzie’s mother and father, along with a number of other family members, made the trip from Arizona to Tacoma. “I’ve dedicated this degree to my auntie and my mom,” said Yazzie. “I’m honoring my dad with an honor stole.” Yazzie’s father gave the opening prayer at the ceremony. “I believe he’s really proud of what I’ve become,” said Yazzie.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org