by Shana Lombard, Communications Assistant
WSU Native American Programs spent much of last spring looking for new staff to fill empty positions. After a thorough process, Joelle Edwards was the first of four new hires to the office.
Joelle Edwards was receiving her master’s degree one week then the next moving from Flagstaff, Arizona to Pullman.
Edwards is a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians where she was raised on her tribe’s reservation since she was four years old. Edwards was raised by parents with one goal in mind, a goal most parents usually want for their children: a life with more than they’ve ever had.
Edwards’ parents knew education was a key component in giving their children the life that they wanted and so they made sure Edwards and her younger siblings knew to take school seriously.
“To them education was important. I think that goes for my dad wanting better than he had – going to college for a good job and a good life,” Edwards said.
Edwards does carry on that same idea of education being of the upmost importance in the betterment of Indian Country, especially when students have support from many people, not just their parents, to help them navigate college.
“My parents were supportive at the college level too. Additionally there were people at the university supporting me from professors to those working in student affairs. It’s those other connections you make that help you to graduate,” she said.
Edwards’s collegiate years are as colorful as her personality. She went on immersion expeditions to places such as Pine Ridge, South Dakota, studied abroad in Italy, was a cabinet member of her university’s Native American student club and worked her last summer in undergrad as a camp counselor. She said the experiences really enlightened her to worlds outside the tribal community where she grew up.
“I really embraced all that college had to offer. I could have done more things but all of the activities I did really brought in my world view and what I thought or still think I want to do with my life,” Edwards said.
Edwards was originally pursuing a degree at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire with intentions of being a school counselor, but said once she took an American Indian studies class she was hooked. Her one class turned into a couple and a couple classes turned into a minor then into having a double major in both psychology and American Indian studies. She credits the professors in the program for keeping her wanting more.
By her senior year, Edwards evolved from wanting to be a school counselor to knowing she wanted to work with Native American students, in particular, at the university level. Once she was ready to apply to graduate school, Edwards had a plan to “strategically place herself” at a university with a large Native American student population.
She knew she wanted to trek right into graduate school since she originally was going for a profession in the psychology field, which does generally require a Master’s degree. She turned her eyes to Northern Arizona University because she was offered an assistantship to work with Housing Resident Life with Residential Learning Communities and that offered free room and board.
“To me, it was like a no brainer. I have to go here. It’s a beautiful place, its right in the mountains in Arizona. It actually has all four seasons,” Edwards exclaimed.
Edwards was also offered an assistantship with the Native American program at Northern Arizona University but because of the sweet deal she got working for housing, Edwards went for the seemingly obvious choice, keeping in mind she could still be just as active in the Native American student community on campus.
Edwards worked with Residential Learning Communities and gained a huge array of skills that helped add to her skill set. From working with budgets to helping plan programming events for students at NAU to supporting students through mental crises and supervising mentors, Edwards said her time at NAU really helped her grow in ways a classroom couldn’t.
“All of those experiences really helped me build my skill set and hands on experience to actually get a job after graduation, which is always the main goal,” Edwards explained.
When Edwards reached her final semester at Northern Arizona, WSU Native American Programs was starting the search for a new retention specialist. Edwards recalls seeing the job posting and getting excited because it was the perfect job for her and she knew she wanted it. After seeing others around her scurry to find a profession to start after graduation, Edwards jumped on the job hunt with them and applied for the specialist job.
A phone interview haunted Edwards as she waited to see if she made it to the next round of the hiring process. On her spring break relaxing at a hotel in nearby Phoenix, Arizona, Edwards got a call asking if she could make her way to the Palouse for an in-person interview. Ecstatic and hopeful, Edwards made her way to Pullman that same week.
“It’s really weird being out of state and trying to do interviews because I am pretty young still so I couldn’t rent a car because if you’re under 25 it’s so expensive to rent a car. So I needed to find a hotel I could walk to and from. I was googling how far things were and it was so complicated,” Edwards said laughing as she revisited the memory.
A little over a month later, she was sitting in a noisy cafeteria eating breakfast, taking in the last few weeks of graduate school and she got a call. She answered to assistant director Faith Price telling her that in a couple weeks she was needed in Pullman to start work.
“I literally graduated, moved here and started work,” she said.
Edwards hopes to develop good relationships with the students that come into the Native American Student Center. She knows that students need more than just family support to do well in college because the act of getting an education is greater than just yourself.
“For me I always said this to myself…my undergrad was for my family. Everyone pushed me to go to school,” she said, adding, “Grad school was for me. During undergrad and graduate school I’ve said to people ‘I want to work with Native American students in higher education.’ That’s what I said to people for probably the last three years and then to graduate and be sitting in this chair, working with Native students, doing this type of work, it’s kind of surreal.”