Cassandra Harden (Diné) was focused on a career in early childhood education when she first learned about internship opportunities with the American Indian College Fund (College Fund). While she studied as a student at tribal college Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Cassandra got involved in SIPI’s early childhood program, working on the College Fund’s Wakanyeja “Sacred Little Ones” and Ké’ Early Childhood Initiatives, as a student intern.
Dr. Danielle Lansing, SIPI’s Early Childhood Education Faculty Instructor also Cassandra’s professor and supervisor was impressed with her work and commitment to the field. Cassandra had learned that the College Fund was looking for summer research interns. As she completed her education at SIPI, she had been seeking a career development opportunity that aligned with her field of study. She graduated from SIPI with an associate degree in early childhood education.
The goal of the American Indian College Fund Tribal College and University (TCU) Summer Research Internship Program, funded through a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc., was to grow the College Fund’s capacity while also affording tribal college students with research internship opportunities at a professional non-profit organization.
After interviewing with the College Fund’s Vice President for Research and Faculty Development Dr. David Sanders, she says she was very excited and grateful about the opportunity to work for the College Fund’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP) department. Her previous student internship opportunities and experience with SIPI’s early childhood program and initiatives taught her to become more confident and resilient within herself as a future Native early childhood educator and researcher. She was also thrilled to move to Denver, Colorado for the TCU Summer Research Internship.
The participating summer research interns received travel assistance for their move to Denver. Cassandra says the College Fund’s ORSP staff members helped them settle into their dormitory apartments at the University of Denver (DU). DU provided student housing for the interns for the duration of the six-week intern experience. The College Fund’s summer research interns received support from the Lilly Endowment Inc. to encourage tribal college students to move to Denver who might not otherwise be able to. Interns’ living dormitory quarters were located directly on DU campus to give them access to the research library, workshops, and it was also near the light rail so they could easily access restaurants, entertainment, and museums; and the universities’ recreational center.
Cassandra loved the contrast between living at the University of Denver and SIPI. Although she valued her time at SIPI, where she had small classes and one-on-one interactions with other intertribal students and teachers, she said living at DU gave her the additional opportunity to experience a large campus in a big city. “I could see myself attending a university like that, and it was exciting and motivating that I had worked hard to get myself there,” she says.Harden on the University of Denver campus during the American Indian College Fund’s TCU Summer Research Internship in 2015.
Once she was settled in at DU, Cassandra said she jumped right into the internship job beginning with orientation with the College Fund’s ORSP staff. After getting to know the College Fund’s staff and the other intern she felt like she was part of the team already.
The work itself gave Cassandra an opportunity to learn more in depth about research and data, how it is conducted and collected, it also helped her focus on her career path in early childhood. “As a student intern at SIPI, I was able to contribute to their Native early childhood initiatives, expand the growth and development of young Native children and their families through culturally responsive events, engage and empower tribal students and parent interns” she says. “During my time at SIPI, I witnessed SIPI’s YDI Early Childhood Learning Center and Lab School curriculum change to be culturally responsive to young Native children and their families. During my internship experiences at SIPI and the College Fund, I knew within myself that I wanted to be part of the early childhood initiative for as long as I could. Coming to the College Fund for the research internship, I was assigned a research question and through that question I learned and understood more about the programs initiatives at tribal colleges and universities—how they impact not just the communities TCUs serves but how these programs and initiatives impact tribal children, parents, families, students and Native communities all across America.”
After working at the College Fund as an intern, Cassandra utilized all of her internship experiences and associate degree as preschool teacher assistant in Denver. After working a year as a preschool teacher assistant, Cassandra was hired fulltime to work in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs as the Tribal College and University Early Childhood Education Program Assistant. This past summer she was promoted as the TCU ECE Program Coordinator and got accepted at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), where she is currently working on earning a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.
The TCU Summer Research Internship program turned out to be a win for both Cassandra and the American Indian College Fund. She obtained valuable research experience and skills she will use within her career and education. It also helped build the College Fund’s capacity in the ORSP department by giving it a fantastic new employee who not only understands the tribal colleges and early childhood education programs it serves, but who was part of them as a tribal college graduate and intern through the College Fund programs and early childhood education initiatives.