‘I almost quit:’ Northern Arapaho woman overcomes adversity to earn her PhD
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(Fremont County, Wyo.) – Being 51 years old, Avis Garcia wants others to know that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. The Northern Arapaho woman earned her PhD this week from the University of Wyoming.
The first thing Avis will tell you is she did not graduate from High School. But that certainly didn’t stop her. Avis earned her GED in 1983 and attended school at CWC. Although she didn’t graduate from CWC, she continued taking night classes on the reservation and eventually moved to Laramie with her former husband. Avis earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Wyoming in 1996 and completed her master’s degree also from UW in 2001. Over the past four year’s she been working towards her doctoral degree and this week completed her PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision from UW.
“I started from the bottom and I want people to know that with a lot of hard, hard work it can be done,” she said. “I hope the information from my dissertation can be shared with the community. I want to motivate families to support their children, I’d like to see youth invest themselves more into their education, and I’d like to see schools preparing our students better so they can be successful at the university level.”
Avis’ dissertation focuses on four Northern Arapaho men who graduated with undergraduate degrees from the University of Wyoming. She studied the various success factors that contributed to their educational achievements (see findings below). “Our reservation is known to have a lot of kids drop out of high school,” she said. “Of those who graduate, only about half try college. And of those students, maybe a quarter make it all the way through.”
Avis has had to overcome many challenges while growing up and going through school. Her family had serious alcohol addiction problems. During her master’s program she lost her mother to a violent crime fueled by alcohol. “I almost quit,” she said. “I ran out of money because I spent it all while my mother was in the hospital and on funeral costs.” During that time, one of her mentors at UW offered her a place to stay and encouraged her to finish what she had started. “She saved me,” Avis said.
From financial burdens to other family members struggling with alcohol addiction, Avis always wondered how she could help and find a way out of this cycle. She attributes much of her success to her grandparents who instilled a love of learning from an early age. “Growing up, I took books from the library all the time, and returned them of course, but I would read anything and everything I could get my hands on,” she said. Avis also mentioned her passion for education and spirituality helped her overcome many challenges as well.
From her research, Avis found the following to be common factors of success among her four study subjects, all Arapaho men who graduated from the University of Wyoming. These four men have gone on to earn their master’s degrees.
- Graduated from High School without earning GED.
- Lived entire life on the reservation.
- Person who attended a local community college (CWC) first and then transferred to University.
- Person with strong two-parent and extended family support system.
- Resourceful with finances.
- Drug and alcohol free. Uses tobacco only in ceremony.
- Motivated to earn degree to help reservation community.
- Person who will seek help and use it to improve their chances of success.
- Highly focused
- Strong spiritual and academic identity.
- Have a passion for chosen field of study.
Plans for the future
Avis has begun job hunting, but in the meantime will return to the Wind River Indian Reservation to provide group drug and alcohol counseling services. She’ll also focus on training staff in this line of work. Avis applied for two jobs in Phoenix, Arizona where she plans to pursue a faculty position at a community college. “I want to do more research to help Native Americans everywhere, not just on my reservation,” she said.
Avis will be presenting her dissertation to the Northern Arapaho Business Council and will also be presenting at the Native American Education Conference held at CWC in Riverton every summer.
Avis also mentioned that Arapaho Member Burnett Whiteplume also received his PhD this Spring from the University of Wyoming. He earned his doctoral degree in Education Curriculum and Instruction. Whiteplume successfully defended his dissertation on April 5, 2017.