Traditional sashes bring a glimpse of home for Native graduates

For Native students, providing support and creating space goes a long way.


Carolyn Barnes

Publish date

May 17, 2022


On the morning of April 27th, PhD student Cynthia Begay, MPH, passed a set of sashes to Dylan Goodwill, M.Ed., assistant director of undergraduate admission. Made from a handwoven blanket and embellished with cardinal and gold detailing, the sashes would be a surprise for graduating Native students that evening. The event would pay homage to the traditional way of honoring someone by wrapping them in a blanket.

The ceremony was part of a celebration hosted by the Native American Student Assembly (NASA), formerly the Native American Student Union, which is made up of Native undergraduate and graduate students from across USC. The group was relatively recently indoctrinated by the University thanks to the work of its dedicated members.

In addition to being presented with a sash, graduates shared legacies for future generations of Native Trojans. This included a scrapbook to which NASA students can continue to add their successes in the coming years.

Begay, a fourth-year PhD in Health Behavior Research student in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences, recalls receiving such gifts at her undergraduate alma mater. “It felt like the school was supporting me… that culmination really made me feel comfortable and just confident moving forward,” she remembers, adding “I wanted to harness some of that for our graduates.”

Begay is Hopi and Navajo. She championed the effort to purchase the sashes, originally planning to fundraise through her private network.

She soon garnered the support of Claradina Soto, assistant professor of clinical population and public health sciences, and herself Navajo and Jemez Pueblo. Soto assisted in securing funding from the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences.

The sashes were made from a traditional blanket, which was sourced from the Native-owned company 8th Generation.

Image courtesy Claradina Soto, PhD.

Begay, Goodwill and Soto are becoming veterans at creating space for Native culture and celebration at universities, all having taken on similar missions at their respective alma maters. However, they note the challenges that compel them to do so.

“Our Native students have a very diverse story,” says Goodwill, noting that most of the Native class is first-generation, and many have come to Los Angeles and USC from an entirely different life on the reservation. It is a story Goodwill knows well – the Navajo Nation is her home.

Changes in culture and daily life, distance from family and community, along with piecing together grants, scholarships and loans to finance their education can be difficult to navigate. On top of those challenges, Begay says there can be a “feeling like you don’t belong because you don’t see other people like you… it’s just really important to have that social aspect to get you through.”

Begay, Goodwill and Soto all describe the experience as “isolating,” and this is one of the reasons they are so dedicated to the Native student community.

For the graduates, it seems to have made great deal of difference. Goodwill talks about how proud she is to witness the students’ resilience and is happy to see them “being rewarded for making it through something that’s not really made for us, along with having every obstacle put in their way.”

In navigating the challenges, Soto also encourages students, “Find a champion. Don’t give up, you’re not alone.”

At least they shouldn’t be. Currently, there are over 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States and over 100 in California. Yet universities typically have only a small handful of Native students. There are high drop-out rates among Native youth, and successfully transitioning first-generation students who have grown up on reservations requires dedicated support.

Begay also acknowledges that Native students who do enroll in a university face the challenge of being called upon to inform others, conceding, “it can be a lot to always be the person to kind of have the emotional exhaustion of combatting stereotypes or educate.”

Goodwill recalls a lack of existing community and resources for Native students at her undergraduate alma mater meant that “a lot of things that should be done by adults were being done by me or other students.” For those she now provides support to, she says, “I want them to have a student life and be students before anything.”

NASA for its part has grown in past years and nearly tripled in size since 2019, thanks in large part to Goodwill and Karras Wilson, former director of Native American student outreach and recruitment. The group hopes to continue its upward trajectory in terms of resources, events, and activities. This year’s celebration brought together not just students, but Native staff and faculty.

Begay and Soto give Goodwill credit for being a fierce advocate for Native Trojans and providing the resources and connections they need to succeed. “It really takes going to the reservation and having these established relationships to get the students to even be willing to come out here,” notes Begay.

It is clearly meaningful work for Goodwill, who swells with pride as she talks about her students successfully navigating unfamiliar territory, or – as she invokes the common Native saying – “walking into a world.”

Begay, Goodwill and Soto were thrilled to see the students’ positive reception of the sashes, and they are excited for the future of NASA.

When asked about her advice for graduates, Goodwill encourages them to continue to explore their potential as individuals – notable advice for those coming from group-oriented cultures. “Be proud of yourselves,” she tells them. “You can do anything.”

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