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Doctoral Student Follows Fulbright to New Zealand

by Jill Anderson

Posted: April 25, 2007

Malia Villegas

Doctoral candidate Malia Villegas has a sparkle in her dark eyes that lets you know something special is about to happen — something life-changing.

By this time next year, Villegas will have embarked on a Fulbright Scholarship where she will spend 10 months studying with the Maori, the Indigenous people of New Zealand, at the National Institute of Research Excellence for Maori Development and Advancement in Auckland. Villegas is one of 10 doctoral students in the United States invited to New Zealand as part of the Fulbright Fellowship.

“This is my next step in my journey,” she says. “It’s exhilarating and exciting. I’m not only going as a representative of HGSE, but of the United States, and of my community in Alaska.”

The recently awarded scholarship will expand on Villegas’ research about education, community, and Indigenous people. Specifically, Villegas focuses her research on Alaska Natives and American Indians.

Many Alaska Natives — often living in remote rural areas — have struggled with access to education, she says. For many decades, the educational solution came by sending Alaska Native students out of their villages and into faraway boarding schools. As a result, Villegas says a cultural gap developed among villages and families where youth, who are now parents and grandparents, may not be able to speak the Native language or understand customs.

While the days of boarding schools are long gone, many of the same challenges in education still exist. American Indian and Alaska Native communities are often remotely located throughout the U.S. with the largest populations of K–12 students — as a percent of total K–12 student population in the state — being served in public schools in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Alaska. Yet many of these states know little about what their counterparts are doing to overcome the education challenges.

“One of the big pieces is that, often times, states look to the national level rather than across the states at what is being done,” she says. This can obscure state efforts that are working well in supporting American Indian and Alaska Native student achievement, she says.

Maori communities may offer some answers to the challenges facing Alaska Native students. Villegas says that the Maori are at least 20 years ahead of some communities in the U.S. in the sense of developing strong education programs while maintaining their Native language and customs. While in New Zealand, she hopes to begin a comparative case study examining the work of Indigenous policy organizations leveraging resources in support of student and community success.

Although her journey doesn’t even begin until January, Villegas is already trying to learn the Maori language and culture. The trip is another step in her journey about preserving Indigenous people’s culture in education. “My hope is to build a two-way, three-way, and four-way relationship among communities nationally and internationally,” she says.  


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