Duke University graduate returns home to inspire future generations

The further Shandiin Herrera got away from her home in Monument Valley, UT, the more she realized how important it would be to use her education and leadership to benefit her people.

Herrera, a 2019 graduate of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, could be headed to Washington, D.C., New York City, or a private consulting firm like many of her peers. 

Her leadership experience, advocacy background, accolades, and academic training would open doors for her anywhere she wanted. But the place  she chose? The one that called to her soul: Home.

“A lot of youth have the idea that success means leaving. It’s a growing pain and a lot of my peers felt the same way, but once at school, we realized how important it is to use our education to uplift our communities,” she said.

The road she took wasn’t easy. Herrera remembers her first year at Duke as difficult.

She felt unprepared for the level of academia at Duke, lacked sufficient support from the university, and was incredibly far from home and her loved ones. 

It was common for many of her Native classmates to transfer or drop out within a year or two. There were times she also wanted to quit. But this was her dream university, and she made the choice to move forward, no matter how difficult.

After figuring out the academics, she started looking for ways the university could better support Native students, many of whom didn’t feel like they belonged.

She began her journey of advocacy, arranging meetings with Duke University decision-makers, like the Vice-Provost, to discuss where the University neglected its Native students. 

Herrera found that the University was not aware nor vigilant about the challenges Native students endure on campus.

Through collaboration, Herrera worked with staff to make positive changes that would foster the Native community.

This included a dedicated space on campus, funding for Native students to attend conferences and workshops, and the creation of a task force to seek and hire Native American staff and faculty.

Advocating not only for herself but for future generations of Native people felt rewarding to Herrera. Herrera began to feel more at home at Duke.

It also inspired her to declare her major in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Advocacy became her passion and life’s work.

Herrera saw a lot of success when she found her place at Duke. She was awarded scholarships from the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, the Udall Foundation, and the Chief Manuelito Scholarship Program. 

In 2019, she won the Terry Sanford Leadership Award, the Duke Alumni Association Forever Duke Leadership Award, and became a Champion for Change for the Aspen Institute Center for Native American Youth.

She was also named the Undergraduate Student of the Year by the American Indian Graduate Center in 2018.

Her passion for advocacy also led her to seek experiences in Peru with the Andean Indigenous community and in Washington, D.C. as a Congressional Intern for Utah Senator Tom Udall.

It was while interning in Washington, D.C. that Herrera found herself desirous to return home to Monument Valley.

She could use all the education, skill, and leadership she had attained at Duke and do so much for her community.

The challenge was finding a job in Monument Valley where she could use her elite skill set. 

A fortuitous meeting with a former roommate led her to the Lead for America (LFA) organization, which was accepting applications for fellowships in its inaugural year.

Lead for America is an organization that supports graduates who want to return to their hometowns to work with their community and be catalysts of change.

Fellowships are awarded for two years and supported by LFA and local organizations. For Herrera, The Wells Fargo Utah Region has played a key role in funding her fellowship so that she could return home.

Herrera remembers the application process as long and tedious, having to meet with various stakeholders to share her vision of returning home.

After meeting with the Oljato Chapter President, James Adakai, the Chapter agreed to host Herrera.

She has been working as a Policy Analyst and Project Consultant with the Oljato Chapter House for three months.

Herrera has accomplished much in her first three months. In a listening and research tour she conducted since mid-September, she found that one of the most pressing issues is how leadership is often not reflective of community members. Young people are not engaging with local government.

“Collectively, I’ve heard that the support we need is our young people coming back. There’s a pretty radical brain drain in Monument Valley,” she said.

“With my research, I’m hoping that my report will show the dire need for institutional support to make the pathway better so more of our people can return home.”

To show local youth what is possible, she is currently creating a youth commission to engage them in decisions being made.

By creating these experiences, Herrera hopes that she will inspire the youth in her community to be more involved, know the possibilities and potential for their futures, and return home to strengthen the community.

“It is difficult being from such a rural community. We continue to haul our water and wood and travel hundreds of miles to the nearest town for shopping.

“Many of us have become stuck in this survival mode; it is challenging to dream of going to college and understand the possibilities available to us,” Herrera said.

“A lot of youth have no idea what opportunities are available to them. My mother was a high school counselor, so she was aware of opportunities for me.

“[The youth] are so capable of doing whatever it may be that they are passionate about, and I use my story as a testimonial to that.”

Shandiin Herrera has given her all to her community. While she could have gone anywhere, she chose to reinvest in her community, and she hopes it inspires others to do the same.

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