Nearly 10 years and more than 100 graduates later, the University of Arizona Knowledge River program is improving services provided by libraries and cultural heritage institutions throughout Arizona and the nation.
The graduate program, run out of the UA's School of Information Resources and Library Science, works to boost the number of Hispanics and American Indians entering the profession while aiding in improving outreach to underserved populations.
The program promotes cultural and linguistic sensitivity, offering coursework on indigenous information services, equity of access, children’s literature in a multicultural society and other topics.
"Our hope is that students will come out of the program if not committed to finding employment and serving their particular community, committed to representing the profession," said Sandy Littletree, who manages the program, which has been funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
The program's graduates have reopened community libraries, introduced programs and other services in communities, are heading up diversity initiatives at major organization and have launched research projects to aid underserved communities.
"They have gone to be a voice for diversity and raising issues," Littletree said.
Here are some of their stories:
Mark A. Puente, Association of Research Libraries
Puente previously served as a music educator and reference librarian and was attracted to the Knowledge River's financial aid package and its focus on access and digital library management.
Since graduating from the program in 2003, Puente said he has become more involved in programs that promote diversity.
"The program certainly made me cognizant of the issues certain protected groups face and the struggles in education and higher education," he said, noting Internet access and access to information in general are among them. "It made me more sensitive to a lot of issues."
After he graduated, Puente was named an American Library Association Spectrum Scholar. And last year, he was named director of diversity programs for the Association of Research Libraries. There, he oversees several major recruitment programs aimed at driving people of color to the profession.
He said another major benefit of the UA program was the community built within it and among cohorts.
"There is such a strong sense of community and there are a lot of people who are really affecting change and working in major leadership positions in organizations and their libraries," Puente said. "That sort of support network has really allows us to, collectively, succeed."
Monique Becerril, Hiaki High School
Since graduating in December, Becerril has begun working as a teacher for Chicanos Por La Causa.
Based at Hiaki (Yaqui) High School, one of the organization's community schools located on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation, she works with instructors to help them incorporate teachings about culture into their curricula.
"The training I received during my Knowledge River studies has provided me with the ability to research and address ways to apply these cultural themes into all subject areas while maintaining cultural competency," she said.
"There is not a set curriculum for Yaqui studies at the high school level, nor has it ever been developed. I try to find resources that would enable students and teachers to better understand Yaqui culture while trying to develop a set curriculum for Yaqui studies," she added.
Becerril, who also worked with refugees from Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia and Nigeria in the past, said she has long been interested in serving diverse populations, particularly related to accss and technology.
She said the prevailing assumption about younger generations, for example, is that they are consistently plugged in.
"However, while constantly working with youth, I have come across numerous instances where students do not even own a computer at home, let alone have Internet access," said Becerril, who would like to someday work as an outreach librarian to urban populations.
"Many teens still do not own cell phones. The library has services that enable all ages to utilize computer access; therefore the library can be viewed as a haven to decrease the digital divide gap."
Jennifer O'Neal, National Museum of the American Indian
O'Neal, a member of The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, learned about the Knowledge River program through her tribal newspaper.
"I wanted to incorporate my heritage into a program. I didn't just want to go into a job because it's a job and only work 9 to 5," said O'Neal, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees in history from Utah State University.
O'Neal is now the head archivist for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center located at the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland.
Her goal and the focus of her work is to encourage the preservation of American Indian artifacts but also to ensure that the maintenance of those materials are carried out in a culturally-sensitive way.
At the Archive Center, she oversees a staff responsible for managing manuscripts, photos, and media collections. She also develops collecting plans and policies, raises funds and works to improve access to the collections while aiding American Indian and non-Native researchers.
"As an archivist, you get to do all sorts of research, not just processing, and I thoroughly enjoy this aspect of the job," said O'Neal, who graduated from the program in 2003 and, while studying, also served as a UA Special Collections intern working on the Stewart Udall and Morris K. Udall archives.
O'Neal has since presented on American Indian archives, as well as protocols related to their management, at various seminars and conferences across the nation.
In 2006, she participated in an international gathering in Flagstaff that drafted the best practices for the culturally responsive care and use of American Indian archival materials, which produced the document “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.” Last year, she helped draft the American Library Association's principles for the management and protection of traditional cultural expressions.
"I wanted to bring honor and impact to my heritage through my career," she said. "The Knowledge River program gave me a strong foundation to begin on this path.”
Luis Francisco Vargas, Yuma Public Library
Vargas was making the professional transition from being a certified bilingual teacher to being a librarian when he learned about the Knowledge River program.
He enrolled in the program because he desired a more collaborative connection with students in which he would be able to draw on their knowledge and languages.
"I was disillusioned by the anti-bilingual education climate and so much wanted to learn about Native Americans while also working with Spanish speakers," said Vargas, who made the weekly commute from Phoenix to Tucson and back to study.
"It was really just perfect to have so many professionals who came for the Knowledge River classes," he said. "And we were political, but careful in our strategies."
A 2004 graduate of the program, Vargas is now the Yuma County Public Library District's youth services director where he works with several other Knowledge River alumni.
"When we first started, there just wasn't much for the afternoon working parent, and nothing for bilinguals," he said.
The team pursued federal grant funding to improve outreach and service and the library collection. It has gone to Mexico to purchase books directly from publishers and has introduced new programs, including early evening reading for toddlers and an outreach program in English and Spanish.
"Once we started going out to the people they started telling us what they needed and we started seeing what the problems were and what issues there were with the library," he said. "We started addressing those."
"It's very rural, and we're taking baby steps in Yuma," Vargas said.
"We need more in the Native American and Latino perspective," he added, noting that early literacy and technology training programs are crucial. "We're looking at the whole family. That's the future of our librarianship."
By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications May 6, 2010