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Students learn life lessons during inaugural Navajo Nation trip

Program one of several new domestic offerings

Eight Ohio University faculty, staff and students visited the Navajo Nation reservation in Tuba City, Arizona, for two weeks this summer in a new Office of Global Opportunities program titled "Cultural Immersion with the Navajo Nation." 

The Navajo Nation has more than 300,000 residents living on its nearly 28,000 miles of land spread across northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah. It is the largest area of land governed by a Native American tribe in the United States.

The trip was administered on the University's behalf by third-party company Amizade, whose stated mission is to empower individuals and communities through worldwide service and learning.

The group was led by Jaylynne Hutchinson, Patton College of Education associate professor, and Ashley Beatty-Smith, global programs coordinator in the Office of Global Opportunities. Four undergraduates and two graduate students, who are both full-time administrators at OHIO, completed the travel party.

Beatty-Smith said the goal of the trip was to provide students with the opportunity to study the Navajo people's language, family structure, traditions and history.

Not only did the group learn a lot about the Navajo people and their surroundings, they also came back with a heightened awareness of the everyday challenges that the indigenous people face every day.

One of the students on the trip was Joshelyn Smith, a senior communication and public advocacy major from Athens, Ohio. She said she has always loved the Navajo people, but since the state of Ohio doesn't have many of them she had never met one. 

"I found the Navajo people to be unique, thoughtful and able to connect with the earth.They have so much wisdom, integrity, poise, and composure and they are very proud people," Smith said. "I personally learned a lot about myself during this trip. It gave me clarity with where I wanted to go with my life. This whole experience made me feel more grounded than ever before."

The six students earned three Patton College of Education Critical Studies course credits for participating in the trip. 

Melissa Woody, a Navajo guide hired by Amizade, provided insights to the significance of each destination to Navajo history and culture during the trip.

Among the group's activities during the trip were basket weaving, moccasin making, apricot harvesting, and participating in a Navajo sweat lodge ceremony. They also visited nearby tourist attractions, including Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and Coal Mine Canyon. In addition, they viewed authentic dinosaur tracks on the reservation. 

"My favorite part of the trip was the amazing hikes and our visit to Coal Mine Canyon," Smith said. "It was so beautiful. The sweat lodge was also great. You have to trust everyone while you are in there. It's a place to let go of burdens. It was life changing and very purifying for me."

Sarah Tucker Jenkins, a master's student in Critical Studies and the program coordinator in the OHIO Women's Center, said visiting the Navajo Nation was a once in a lifetime trip for her because as a tourist, she wouldn't have gotten the insider experience and been able to go to some of their traditional ceremonies.

"This was an incredible experience. We met a lot of people at the reservation," Tucker Jenkins said. "It was fulfilling to learn while giving back through service learning. I've always wanted to learn more about the indigenous culture and the timing of the trip worked out. It also goes along with my work as an Office for Diversity and Inclusion staff member."

Beatty-Smith said she learned that the Navajo tribe is in a constant battle to save their native language, Navajo. She said much of the problem arises from the fact that many of the tribe's elders were forced into boarding schools during their youth where they only spoke English. She said the Navajo Nation leadership is making a concerted effort to make sure the younger generation learns and speaks the native language.

She said another major problem for the Navajo people is a lack of resources. She said many of them don't have electricity and running water in their homes. 

Beatty-Smith said it's frustrating to know that the U.S. government has taken improper advantage of the Navajo Nation's land.  

"For many years, our government has taken valuable natural resources from the Navajo reservation and given the residents nothing or very little back in return," Beatty-Smith said. 

She added that much of the Navajo Nation land is not ideal for farming, so it's difficult for the people to grow crops, which ultimately makes them more reliable on outside food sources.

Tucker Jenkins also said she was discouraged by the plight of the Navajo tribe.

"The most frustrating thing about the trip was that no one in the media talks about how the Navajo people are being treated by our government," she said. "Their natural resources are taken regularly and the ones that are left are many times polluted. Unfortunately, we had to fly to Arizona to learn about this." 

Tucker Jenkins recommended the "Broken Rainbow" documentary. She said it is a must watch for anyone who wants to learn more about the struggles of the Navajo tribe in the U.S.

Smith said the inaugural Global Opportunities Navajo Nation trip was a great experience for her and recommended it for any student who wants to learn more about Native Americans or the United States.

"I liked that the trip was in the U.S. because I feel that it's important that Americans get to know their own country," Smith said.

The Office of Global Opportunities has recently expanded its domestic program offerings to provide more intercultural experiences in the United States. These programs offer American students a chance to travel inside the United States and also allow international students an opportunity to learn more about their host country. 

For more information about the "Cultural Immersion with the Navajo Nation" program or any other Global Opportunities program, visit https://www.ohio.edu/global/goglobal/ or call 740-593-4583.

Students are also invited to attend the Global Opportunities Fair from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 14 in the Baker University Center Ballroom.


The Ohio University group poses at Canyon de Chelley: (L-R) William Rhodes, Phillip Burdyn, Ashley Beatty-Smith, Stephanie Marion, Joshelyn Smith, Julia Smucker (Amizade administrator), Douglas Robinson, Sarah Tucker Jenkins, Jaylynne Hutchinson


Student Joshelyn Smith grinds corn with a grinding stone at the house of a Navajo Nation community member.



Student Phillip Burdyn looks over Monument Valley. 


The group stops at the border of Utah and Arizona on the way to visit Monument Valley.  


The group stands high on a rock in Coal Mine Canyon.


Student Phillip Burdyn pets a goat in Navajo Nation.



The group takes in another breathtaking view while hiking in Navajo Nation. (L-R): Phillip Burdyn, Ashley Beatty-Smith, Douglas Robinson, Julia Smucker (Amizade administrator), William Rhodes, Joshelyn Smith, Stephanie Marion, Jaylynne Hutchinson, Sarah Tucker Jenkins.



The group helps harvest apricots on the property of a community member.


Student Stephanie Marion is all smiles while collecting apricots in Navajo Nation.


Group hikes through Canyon de Chelly during their two-week stay in Navajo Nation.