Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
“The meaning of life is to find your gift,” said artist Pablo Picasso. “The purpose of life is to give it away.”
Falonna Ashley has found her gift.
And the recent Grand Canyon University teaching graduate has chosen to share it in one of the most hard-scrabbled places in the country: her home in the Navajo Nation.
It would have been easy to just stay in Phoenix, where she dove into her student teaching at Phoenix’s Washington Elementary School District, then landed a job as a teacher’s assistant in a self-contained classroom in Litchfield Park, where she first fell in love with special education.
The resources available to teachers and students at those schools were plentiful.
But when an opening came up for a teacher’s assistant in Ganado, Arizona, about 20 miles from her hometown of onetime trading post Wide Ruins in the Navajo Nation, she didn’t hesitate to apply.
Not one second.
Not even if the resources wouldn’t be as plentiful.
Schools on Native American reservations, where buildings often go years in disrepair, have produced some of the lowest academic results in the country – a tragedy for many rural reservation communities, such as Wide Ruins and Ganado, where Bureau of Indian Education campuses are the only option.
Yet despite those challenges, Ashley was determined to take the bachelor’s degree in elementary and special education she earned from GCU in 2019 and return home to the reservation to make the most significant impact she could as a teacher.
When she was in her 20s, the thought of even becoming a teacher was unimaginable for Ashley, who grew up in a family of seven siblings. Her father was an alcoholic who passed away when she graduated from high school and, “I vaguely remember my mom being there,” she said.
She and her siblings attended boarding school and would herd sheep on their grandparents’ sheep farm on the reservation, where they would spend most of their weekends.
It was from her grandmother, Alma, that she understood the value of education.
“She was the one who made sure we got back to the school on the weekdays, and she was the one who really emphasized that school is important. She was a really big advocate for education,” said Ashley of her grandmother, who worked as a dorm parent at Wide Ruins Community School, the sole elementary school in an area of 1,000 residents on the southern end of the Navajo Nation.
That drive for education stayed with her long after her grandmother passed away from leukemia in 2001, when Ashley was just 12 years old. Yet she never thought she was smart enough to pursue higher education.
“After high school, I kind of just went to Maricopa Community College just to go – for something to do. … I guess I was kind of lost,” Ashley said.
She trudged through four years of studies to earn her associate degree in liberal arts, and it wasn’t until one of the teachers and the principal at the school in Ganado encouraged her that she thought she could do more.
“Every year during my evaluation, they would say to me: ‘I want to challenge you to go back to school and become a teacher.’ … But I thought it would be too hard.”
Once she found the confidence she needed, Ashley enrolled in GCU online classes and, for three years, while continuing to work as a teacher’s assistant, did the work and earned her bachelor’s degree, then took the next step.
On Tuesday, she walked across the Commencement stage at GCU Arena after completing her master’s in educational leadership and now teaches special education at Greasewood Springs Community School on the Navajo reservation, a kindergarten through eighth grade school about an hour away from Wide Ruins that will be getting new facilities soon for its 220 kindergarten through eight grade students.
“It’s in a very rural area. The nearest Walmart is like an hour away … even the nearest town, you’re driving over an hour just to get groceries or do laundry or go to the movies or eat out,” said Ashley, though some who live on the farther reaches of the reservation travel up to two hours for some of those conveniences.
Because of the distance home, Ashley lives in housing near the school available to teachers and travels home on the weekends.
Despite the remoteness and lack of resources, Ashley is dedicated to teaching there.
“I want to work with children who have the same culture as me. A lot of them grew up similar, or the same environment, that I did. … In the end, I wanted to work with Navajo children.”
She’s using her teaching gifts to work with the school’s special education students, and it’s important for her, she said, to share how “our students are students of the school first before they are a student with a disability.
“When you work with special education, they kind of think, ‘I can’t do it. It’s too hard. I can’t do it, I can’t do it.’ You have to really work with them individually, and then when they do get it, you see the light in their eyes and their face lights up.”
She also tries to remember what she learned in her master’s program: lead by example, something she keeps in mind every day in a profession she loves.
“The goal was never to make it off the rez,” said Ashley. “The goal was to show rez kids that we are capable of far more than anyone wants to believe we are. We are Navajo people. We are resilient, we are strong and we are here.”
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
Not only has Ashley found her gift, she has returned home to give that gift away.
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
GCU Today: Commencement speech evokes happy memories