Genma Speaks

Entrepreneur/ Writer/ Radio-Host

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Heritage, History, Education: Dr. Cassandra Mauelito-Kerkvliet on Living Your Best Life with Genma Holmes

Join Living Your Best Life with Genma Holmes as we profile organizations and leaders who lead by example. With extraordinary acts of kindness and charitable giving that help countless lives daily, these organizations and leaders embody "Be the change you want to see in the world".

Hear from Greek organizations and their national presidents who are global change agents. We will also hear from CEOs of social enterprise businesses who are changing communities and college and university presidents and educators who are taking their students out of the classroom and into surrounding neighborhoods for real world life lessons to serve others.

I met Dr. Cassandra Mauelito-Kerkvliet at Lipscomb University's Women, Leadership and Faith Conference in October, 2010. Dr. Mauelito-Kerkvliet's keynote message was so powerful and compelling that many attendees are still discussing her wisdom she shared with us. Her words from that faithful day ignited a fire in me that lead to several collaborative projects that launched Living Your Best Life! Her impact on me has been repeated often to the listeners of Living Your Best Life and readers of Genmaspeaks

On Saturday, September 1 2012, as part of our back to school series, you will hear from Dr. Cassandra Mauelito-Kerkvliet, President of Antioch University and the great, great granddaughter of Navaho Chief Mauelito. She will share about her life and her Navajo heritage, American history that has been left out of history books, and how she is impacting the world of education with her leadership. Tune in to hear from an educator who will empower, inspire, and motivate you to live your BEST life.

Living Your Best Life, a radio show that empowers, inspires and motivates one to live their BEST life, can be heard on 760 AM in the Middle-Tennessee Region, military bases, and streamed live on U-Stream.TV from 9-10AM CST.

Up close with Dr. Cassandra Mauelito-Kerkvliet

On July 15, 2007, Dr. Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet became president of Antioch University Seattle and the first Native American woman to ascend to the presidency of an accredited university outside the tribal college system. How she found her way to Antioch is a rich story enhanced by her leadership in higher education, her Navajo ancestry and her deep understanding of inclusiveness.

What drew you to Antioch Seattle?
I was invited to apply for the position. Soon after investigating the University's website, I saw myself as having a place here. The Antioch philosophy of giving back to the community is so much a part of my life. My beliefs in higher education access and inclusiveness also drew me to Antioch and I intend to spread that message.

What key strengths do you bring to your role as Antioch’s president?
I stand firm in my values and integrity, it's important to me to walk my talk. It's how I work. I'm energized by the positive results of my approach. I bring a synergy and new direction to community building. I feel I can increase Antioch's enrollment, increase its diversity and access for all students, faculty, staff and administrators who come from all walks of life. I want to create access for students who may never have believed they could be part of Antioch. I'm good at opening doors.

Through collaboration, networking and mentoring, I've become connected in higher education. Although I served as the first woman president of Diné College on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico, the majority of my career has been spent in mainstream higher education working in minority student services programs at Oregon State University, University of Oregon, University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and University of Wyoming.

I'm excited about new ideas and program initiatives for Antioch. I want to inspire people with new hope and energy and instill a broader vision of what we can achieve.

What challenges do you see in the months ahead?
One of my goals is to increase our presence in Seattle. Antioch has a special niche in this city and we need to do further outreach. I want to promote our story – our successes – to a broader audience and cultivate donors so they understand the importance of scholarship giving and the merits of what it provides for our students.

Students here have amazing stories about their Antioch experiences. Alumni describe their education as transformational and the best investment they could have made. More people need to hear what students have to say.

I also hope to encourage changes in the admissions process to reduce the application processing time. The more we review our current practices, the more we improve our responsiveness to students who apply to our programs.

I approach my leadership and decision making like weaving a tapestry, where we work across disciplines and from the bottom up as well as from the administration down. I want to focus on people who never before have been acknowledged or appreciated. I would encourage people who have been on the sidelines, because I believe everyone is invaluable to our University community.

The challenge for me, personally, entails a balancing of my emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual lives so I can be at my best as Antioch Seattle's president.

You have said your leadership style is distinctly different. How so?
When I was a graduate student, my internship supervisor shook a finger at me and sternly asserted I would never be successful as a leader because my leadership style was so different. My leadership style is distinctly different. I want people to be able to approach me and be comfortable in my presence. My experience and training in counseling and social work have helped me be a compassionate leader.

A way for me to strengthen our community is to show both professional and personal sides of myself. Sharing my personal life brings me much closer to the people I work with and shows my vulnerability. For example, I brought some of my Native traditions to Antioch's Convocation.

Most importantly, I've been able to gauge my ability to succeed. In one of my first classes in my doctoral program, I recall being asked why I wanted to be an administrator. "One day, I want to be a college president," I enthusiastically responded. I was confident in what I said I'd do, not once at Diné College, but twice, now that I'm at Antioch.

Can you describe your upbringing?
I was born and raised in Laramie, Wyoming, where there were no other Indians other than my family, and we grew up experiencing discrimination. My parents were blue-collar workers—but individuals who just needed to be respected. I recall how my parents wanted to keep our Navajo culture intact, and every weekend and weather permitting, we drove more than 650 miles to our reservation in New Mexico so we could stay connected to our Navajo ways and our extended family.

My mother had an 11th grade education and my father an 8th grade education. They shared stories about how they were sent to Indian boarding schools where they were subjected to physical and emotional abuse. Yet they encouraged us to never give up on education and that they would support us with their prayers.

They also reminded us of our great, great grandfather Chief Manuelito, who had the foresight to see the importance of education. When he signed the Navajo Treaty of 1868, he said, "Education is the ladder to success. Tell my grandchildren to climb that ladder." His words have guided me throughout my life. I honestly believe I am where I am because of my deep family love, support and connection to my ancestors.

I frequently turn to my traditions and ceremonies with an eagle feather I carry. It reminds me to call upon my ancestors for guidance and spiritual support. I use it to remind myself to have respect for honor those who work with me.

You have been described as especially intuitive.
Before I arrived at Antioch, I started telling myself it was a matter of when – not if – I got to Antioch. I could empathize with the issues expressed by individuals and groups I met during my interviews and I wanted to fit that experience into my leadership. It's a big part of me and how I nurture my personal and professional relationships – what Navajos refer to as k'é, a relationship not just with people, but with our environment as well. Relationships are important to me.

Two stories speak to this relationship building. The first one deals with an individual I nurtured in my work at Oregon State. An elderly woman sent the equivalent of a dollar a day or $365 to support an Indian student with an annual scholarship contribution. Each year, I'd send her a photo of the student who benefited and made sure we both wrote thank-you letters. One day, the president of the university called me to his office and asked about my contact with this individual. She had generously left OSU nearly one million dollars in her will to be used for Indian scholarships.

Then, when I was president at Diné College, I dreamed about meeting the internationally renowned Navajo artist R.C. Gorman. And later I did develop a special relationship with him. As our friendship grew, he made a donation to the College of his personal library collection and many original pieces of art. It became the largest private gift ever received by the college. We remodeled our college library to house his gifts. Before his death in 2006, he presented me with a beautiful and personal gift of one of his works, which he named "Cassandra."

Photo credits: Lipscomb University

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