A Roundabout Route to Fulfillment
Native American student credits UNM librarian for helping him succeed in college
By Felipe Medina-Marquez
For many students, the path to graduation is a difficult and bumpy one. But for Alan (Sixtus) Dominguez, a Raramuri/Apache undergraduate student, the journey has been more like Homer’sOdyssey. By the time he graduates this May with a degree in Native American Studies, he will have moved across the country four times, attended college three times, attempted several majors, solidified his identity, and defied the odds, thanks in part to Mary Alice Tsosie, co-founder of UNM’s Indigenous Nations Library Program (INLP), and the INLP staff.
A Standout Student
When it comes to education, many Native Americans have the deck stacked against them. According to the National Institute for Native Leadership in Higher Education, only six out of every 10 Native Americans will finish high school. Of the 60 percent who graduate, 20 percent will enter college, but only 3 percent will finish.
“By the time I graduated high school, most of my friends were no longer there,” Sixtus said. In fact, most of them had dropped out by middle school, but Sixtus was one of the fortunate ones to finish high school. In fact, he graduated at the top of his class in Lovington, N.M., and in the fall of 1990, he travelled across the country to attend Boston University (BU) as an engineering major.
Sixtus struggled to fit in at BU. The classes were difficult and he felt isolated. He was used to being around indigenous peoples in New Mexico, but in Boston, he met only one other Native American. “I had culture shock for the first year and had to deal with some identity and cultural issues,” he said.
Although he maintained a passing grade point average, Sixtus moved back to New Mexico after more than two years in Boston. Still, his BU experience was positive overall. “The learning curve was high,” he recalled, “not necessarily in the academic sense, but I learned about the world and living—you learn about yourself by leaving home.” He also started making art while in Boston, something he hasn’t stopped doing since.
Sixtus didn’t feel entirely welcome back in New Mexico either. “It was challenging,” he said. “I ended up feeling ostracized.” He decided to head East again, this time settling in Washington, D.C. He worked as a waiter and frequented the National Gallery of Art. Absorbing the great indigenous Mexican artworks there sparked an “ancient and beautiful” rediscovery of himself. Feeling newly purposeful, he moved back to New Mexico to study fine art at UNM.
Challenges and Opportunities
In 1996, Sixtus enrolled at the College of Fine Arts and met his future wife, Susana. He left UNM without finishing his degree and started professional art and appliance-leasing businesses that thrived until 2008. Out of steady work in the down economy, he decided to return to UNM, this time as a Native American Studies major. “The second time around at UNM, I looked at all the programs,” he said, “and nothing else was more important than being part of the Native American Studies program.”
One of the first signs that Sixtus had found the right program at last was his introduction to Mary Alice and the INLP staff. Housed in a suite of rooms in Zimmerman Library known as the Gathering Place, INLP helps Native American students with research, teaches information literacy, and presents lectures on Native American topics. One of the goals, said Mary Alice, is to improve the retention rate for Native American university students.
“Many Native American students come to college at a disadvantage,” she explained. “Many feel overwhelmed with the library because the libraries where they are from are typically small and have few resources. Many schools simply do not prepare students for college; not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the resources.”
When Sixtus met Mary Alice, she “holistically embraced” him. “She asked me about myself to get a better understanding about my needs,” he said. “She told me about employment opportunities at INLP and gave me tips. I was able to discuss my whole Native identity: My family life, what was going on with me personally, my future plans. She made me feel welcome at UNM.”
“This is my third attempt at being at a university,” Sixtus said, “and it has been the best time of my life as far as education is concerned. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been able to maintain my spot on the Dean’s List, and a big part of that has been because I’ve been able to enjoy my community-based research and get help with it, as well as have a place where I feel comfortable doing research.”
That enjoyment and comfort comes in no small part from the efforts of Mary Alice and INLP. “She is a bridge among Native American students, faculty, and the community,” Sixtus said.
Mary Alice explained that INLP’s success in helping retain Native American students comes in part from program staff who understand where the students are coming from. “It’s more than just being available,” she said. “[The students] know they can ask questions and we’ll be there for them and work with them.”
INLP also helped Sixtus land a work-study job and hired him and Susana (who together sign their art as AnSuLaLa) to create two murals that incorporate Native American themes and symbols for the ceiling of the Gathering Place, the INLP space where Native American students may conduct research, study and relax. The couple plans additional artwork for the area. “Students and visitors often are awed by the murals,” said Mary Alice. “One called Sixtus the indigenous Michelangelo!”
Mary Alice explains that many of the symbols used in the murals are indigenous and representative of many “first peoples” beyond the Southwest. “What is really beautiful about Sixtus and Susana is that they are really able to express themselves in their artwork and verbally,” she said. “Like a prayer, they are acknowledging, respecting and honoring the way Native people think.”
Mary Alice also has inspired Sixtus to change his world for the greater good—in the classroom, his art and his personal life. “She made it clear that an individual can help the community by helping oneself and that way one can better contribute to community,” he said. “She gave me many opportunities to develop my public-speaking skills. She increased my confidence as a student and showed me how to network.”
After graduation, Sixtus plans to attend law school and then eventually earn a master’s degree in public administration after pursuing a career in American Indian law and environmental law. INLP, he said, “gives Native students—and others who work with Indian people—a chance to revitalize, reintegrate and go forward in a renewed, indigenous-based way.”
You can help support the Gathering Place by making a gift to the Indigenous Nations Library Program, which will help:
- Refurbish the physical space—creation and maintenance of a culturally sensitive, technology-enhanced student space is critical.
- Acquire specialized furniture and equipment to provide distance learning capacity as well as allow for outreach to Native Students outside of Albuquerque.
- Improve the collection, fund faculty positions, provide for digitization of materials and create oral histories.
To learn more, please call Maggie Schold, director of development for University Libraries at (505) 277-5632.