Chosen for their leadership work and positive impact on their communities, ASU students Triston Black and Maria Walker were two of five young adults selected across the nation as 2022 Champions for Change by the Center for Native American Youth.
In the 10-year run of the program, this is the first time two students have come from the same university.
"I was actually really proud to see two students not only from Arizona but also from the same institution," said CNAY program manager Cheyenne Brady. "I think it speaks to the community that ASU has provided their Indigenous population."
The Champions for Change program is a leadership program inspired by a 2011 White House Initiative with the goal of empowering young Native leaders through experience-based learning and tailored advocacy training, while maintaining a strong sense of culture and tradition.
Each year, the Center for Native American Youth selects five students who have exemplified quality leadership skills and who have had a significant positive impact on their community. Those selected take part in a year-long program that begins with a trip to Washington, D.C., where they are given national recognition and the opportunity to meet with members of Congress.
The event is followed by a year-long run on CNAY's Youth Advisory Board. The champions are provided with a variety of resources throughout the year that serve to enhance their leadership and advocacy skills.
"In addition to going through the program and trainings, we're actively providing them the opportunity to share their narrative," Brady said. "One thing that we really focus on here at CNAY is centering youth voice and allowing youth to guide the process, because they are the future."
Triston Black, an ASU Online graduate student from Tsaile, Arizona, studying Indigenous education, is a member of the Spring 2022 cohort of the American Indian Policy Institute's Indigenous Leadership Academy at ASU.
Black, a member of the Navajo nation, was appointed to serve on the Youth Advisory Council as the interim chairperson, in which he provided policy recommendations on youth-related issues to the Navajo Nation Council.
"Being able to volunteer on the Youth Council was a really great opportunity for me," Black said. "It allowed me to not only serve a lot of Native youth but also to really listen to them and their concerns."
The preservation of Navajo culture and language is a prime motivator for Black. During his time in the CFC program, he hopes to prioritize keeping Indigenous languages, cultures and practices alive.
"For me, this program is about honoring our ancestral knowledge to help sustain and keep it alive for future generations to come," he said. "My Navajo culture is what really motivates me, because it values you as an individual. It doesn't keep you away — it welcomes you with open arms."
Maria Walker is working toward her master's degree in the science of health care delivery at ASU after obtaining her bachelor's degree in health science and works on the medical-surgical team at Summit Healthcare.
As a member of the White Mountain Apache community, she has worked for Johns Hopkins University's Center for American Indian Health as a research program assistant with the Infectious Diseases team. She has worked on several studies, most notably research on the Pfizer booster, as well as a study regarding the long-term effects of COVID-19.
"It was really heartwarming and amazing to be a part of such an important movement, especially because of how many lives the pandemic has affected," she said. "The work was just so rewarding."
Walker has been interested in the medical field since she was a child and took care of her sick mother and grandmother. When she was 16, her mother passed, and her grandmother took guardianship over Walker and her siblings. Last year, her grandmother died, resulting in Walker establishing legal guardianship over her younger brother this month.
Walker's reservation has been a constant source of support for her, and has stepped in to financially assist her with attending academic programs.
Amid these hardships, Walker has persevered and hopes her story can show other youth on her reservation it is possible to overcome struggle and that "everyone is capable of success."
"It just means so much to be here now," Walker said. "I went through so much but all of those struggles helped shape me into the person I am now. It's so rewarding thinking that despite everything, I was able to make it to this point."
According to Associate Vice President of Tribal Relations for American Indian Initiatives Jacob Moore, it is important to recognize and support students at ASU for their achievements in their communities.
"Our Indigenous students can create significant change within their own community, and we see that with these two particular students," Moore said. "It's important that we support them as they engage within their communities."
Sadie Buggle is the Editor of the State Press Opinion Desk. This is her third semester working for the State Press after two semesters reporting for the Community and Culture Desk.