Road to success: GCU grad aids her Navajo Nation
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
The name Cedar Avenue inspires idyllic images of a winding country road bordered by sprawling cedar trees.
But Cedar Avenue wasn’t as idyllic as its name sounds.
The street – the only access road to Navajo Elementary School in the one-restaurant, one-gas station town of Navajo, New Mexico — was so full of potholes that drivers created their own special routes to avoid the missing pavement and cavernous dips. And it took school bus drivers 15 minutes just to navigate the almost half-mile stretch unscathed.
Stacy Etsitty, the school’s bookkeeper, decided enough was enough. Cedar Avenue had been a disgrace to avenues for long enough, ever since she was a student herself at the school.
So even though it wasn’t in her job description, she was determined to make it better. And she did, galvanizing the community and helping raise enough funds to get the road fixed.
That determination to get things done defines Etsitty, who is graduating Saturday from Grand Canyon University with her Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Management. She is among the largest class of graduates from GCU, with traditional on-ground students walking the stage in April and online learners graduating virtually this weekend.
She was determined, too, to go to college and, just as important, return to the Navajo Nation reservation to help her community – so many do not return and seek opportunity elsewhere.
“They get attached to the city life,” said Etsitty.
Within the Navajo Nation, which occupies northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah, 35.8% of households have incomes far below the federal poverty level, 35% do not have access to running water and 15,000 people do not have electricity, according to Prosperity Now in an article from May 2020.
It is why roads such as Cedar Avenue exist.
Etsitty was first inspired by her grandparents to pursue a college degree.
“My grandparents always told me that if you want something, go after it – whatever you want in life, whatever you want to do. To be honest, I didn’t know what they meant by that,” said Etsitty on her lunch break from Window Rock, Arizona, where she recently started a new job as an associate accountant with the Navajo Nation.
For Etsitty, that meant starting her career path at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, a public tribal land-grant community college in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
But always, in the back of her mind, she told herself, “In some way, when I leave here, I’m going to return to Navajo, New Mexico,” where she went to school and where about 95% of the residents are Navajo.
With her associate degree in liberal arts in hand, she did return. But jobs were scarce.
“Getting a job on the reservation is very hard, even if you have a degree,” she said.
Still, she was able to become a substitute teacher and, a week later, was hired as a bookkeeper for Navajo Elementary School, where not a lot had changed since she was a student there. Many of the people working there also were at the school when she was a student.
It bothered her that students lacked resources. So many items that students needed just weren’t in the budget.
“The main office said, ‘You can’t order this.’ I worked around those dilemmas and did get the students what they wanted,” she said.
While she was at the elementary school, she heard about GCU from her cousin, who was enrolled at the University. She started asking him about the classes. He told her she would take a course to help her with time management. With a full-time job, she thought it would fit her schedule.
Not that it was easy.
She kept in contact with her Student Services counselor – a lot.
“She pushed me,” said Etsitty, who always thought of her grandparents when she told herself, “I’m going to finish it. I’m going to finish it.”
While Etsitty didn’t know exactly what her grandparents meant when they told her to go after what she wanted in life, she knows what those words mean now.
Etsitty pushed herself, too, to expand her horizons beyond her hometown and landed her position in Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation, as an accountant.
Ironically, Etsitty said she never wanted anything to do with math. She said she failed every math class she had.
“Even with my associate’s … I had to be held back because of trigonometry. I said, ‘I’m never going to get a job that has to do with math.’”
But when she returned to her hometown, there weren’t a lot of jobs open. The bookkeeping job fell into her hands, she said.
“It was a job I didn’t want to take, but at the same time, I had to. I hardly knew anything about math or accounting,” she said, but she did take some accounting classes for her degree.
She struggled with it for a time but eventually fell in love with it. She especially loves when, in the end, the numbers add up and come out correctly.
When you ask Etsitty why she was so determined to return to the Navajo Nation, she said it was important to her to give back and help raise up and improve the community that raised her. Her late paternal grandmother would always tell her, “Respect people; help them if you can.”
“I want to do more for my people. … Look at this place,” Etsitty said. “How can someone do their education and NOT come back to this place?”
Her brother, Lyle Etsitty, said, “My sister has witnessed so much struggle in our communities. She has also seen my mother’s and father’s determination to make ends meet. She has mentioned to me on various occasions, ‘Lyle, I want something better. I want a higher degree from an associate’s. She would go on to say, ‘I want to be better.'”
Wanting to raise up her community is an idea she shares with the University, which is guided by its mission to bring transformational change to its own community of west Phoenix. The University sees it as its duty as a Christian institution to help its neighbors, much like Etsitty does.
GCU President Brian Mueller spoke earlier this week at a press conference in which the University and partner CityServe announced they would begin distributing school supplies, furniture, clothing, heaters and other essential goods to those in need. He said his hope is that students, once they leave here, whatever their major might be, will bring their light into the darkest places.
Because of her determination to pursue higher education, Etsitty says others around her have been inspired to do the same. A couple of her co-workers, after hearing about her getting her bachelor’s, have since started their degree programs. One is in the associate degree program at the University of New Mexico in Gallup.
“Another individual I work with went to GCU after I told him,” said Etsitty, who is in her master’s program at GCU in Public Administration.
Her brother also decided to return to school to get his master’s degree after he saw she was continuing her education.
“My sister’s eagerness to pursue a grad degree was contagious. Her go-getter mentality is one of a kind,” he said.
Etsitty plans to pursue her doctorate next.
And Cedar Avenue?
“It’s smooth, all the way to the school,” she said.
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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