Stanford Alumna Supporting the Next Generation of Indigenous Scholars
Chaely (pronounced Kelly) was born and raised on the Makah Indian reservation in Neah Bay, located on the lush Northwestern tip of Washington. Known for their powerful fishing fleet and fierce whaling traditions, Neah Bay is home to a tight-knit and secluded community of 1,500 residents.
"Somehow, my mom [a Makah woman] managed to meet a Pohnpeian man an hour outside of here." Pohnpei, one of the islands of the Federated States of Micronesia located in the South Pacific, is also inhabited by a small number of people - roughly 34,000.
"My dad and his friends just picked a spot on the globe and traveled there. There are very few people living in Pohnpei, and my mom snagged one of them."
While Pacific Islanders make up only 0.5% of the U.S. population, they are one of the fastest growing minority groups in the U.S.
Growing up on the Makah Reservation
"I feel rather fortunate, because I am living on my ancestral lands." Sustained ownership of the land came at a price though. In 1859, the Makah tribe ceded close to 300,000 acres of tribal land to the U.S. in order to retain their whaling rights. In fact, they are the only tribe in the country with a treaty right to hunt whales.
Chaely pointed out that substance abuse, broken families, poverty and mental health play an unfortunately large part in her community, but she has been extremely fortunate.
On the path to a Gates Millennium Scholarship
For a chunk of her childhood, Chaely attended a predominantly white elementary school in Eastern Washington. "There are those tracks -- you're either smart, average or remedial -- and they immediately put me on that remedial track, because I was quiet. It wasn't because I didn't understand [my classes]. I just didn't feel supported. People didn't really understand me.”
When she returned to the Makah reservation for middle school, Chaely suddenly felt more comfortable in her classes surrounded by her community. Teachers recognized her academic excellence, and Chaely's true potential began to shine.
Chaely eventually earned a Gates Millennium Scholarship, a prestigious award given to outstanding minority students with large financial need. She also became one of the very few Native American/Pacific Islander students admitted to Stanford University in 2010.
Since both of her parents had attended college, Chaely felt like her choice to attend Stanford was a no-brainer, even though leaving Neah Bay is out of the norm for people in her community. "It's typical for people to stick around and go to schools in the area."
Indigenous at Stanford: Experiencing micro-aggressions
Despite some pressures to stay in Neah Bay, Chaely took a leap of faith and embarked on a challenging academic path at Stanford. "I was coming from a small high school. The idea in my mind was 'I got into college - that's the finish line."
Chaely describes her freshman year as fun and filled with boundless opportunities for indigenous students. Stanford boasts a Native American Cultural Center, an indigenous-focused dorm, and a Native Studies Program.
While Stanford provided empowering resources for indigenous students, an unfortunate reality began to settle in. "When I got into leadership roles in the native community, I became aware of some of the micro aggressions that were happening" towards Native Americans.
Even though Stanford banned the use of the Indian Mascot in 1972, debates around the mascot were resurfacing. "Junior year, I was in a tiny depression. I used to think that [the mascot] was messed up, and if only I told people that it hurt our feelings, that it was a caricature not representing us correctly, everyone would understand." Chaely and other indigenous students would put on anti-mascot awareness events, but they would still run into students wearing the mascot.
Chaely vividly recalls a classmate wearing a sweatshirt with the Indian mascot. "I remember thinking -- I'm gonna tell her it's really offensive and ask if she would consider not wearing it."
Before Chaely could muster up the courage to talk to her classmate, another student remarks "OMG I love your sweatshirt." The classmate with the sweatshirt responds: "Thanks! I know people are offended by it, but I really don't care."
"My heart sunk," Chaely recounts. "I didn't understand that people were oblivious or just didn't care. I had thought that -- maybe -- if they were aware, they would care... I eventually felt more and more invisible in this Stanford bubble. These small things add up. I felt like I could literally disappear, and no one would care. It was a huge, rude awakening. It put me in a slump."
Working to support the next generation of indigenous leaders
Since her eye-opening experience at Stanford, Chaely has been breaking down barriers and advocating for wellness and educational opportunities for the Makah people.
After graduating in 2014 with a B.S. in Science, Technology and Society, she has worked at her tribe's wellness center and served as the 2017 Makah Queen, a prestigious community role. Though Chaely's reign as Makah Queen has recently ended, she looks forward to focusing on indigenous and Pacific Islander student mentorship.
"I think a lot of native people struggle with culture shock, so when they go to a school, they have a hard time getting comfortable in a new environment. I really want young natives to succeed and to take on these challenges. I want to help them feel empowered. I am happy that our younger people are going to these top schools. That's why I'm interested in school counseling, not only to [help get students] academically ready, but physically and emotionally ready to take on these challenges."