President Barack Obama announced his nomination of University of Arizona graduate student Shelly C. Lowe (Diné) — months after the White House gave her cousin and fellow Wildcat a "Champions of Change" award — to serve as a National Endowment for the Humanities board member.
Lowe, a doctoral candidate in the UA Center for the Study of Higher Education, is one of three new National Council on the Humanities appointees named by Obama. The U.S. Senate has since confirmed Lowe and the two other nominees to serve on the board of the endowment, an independent federal agency and one of the greatest supporters of the humanities nationwide.
"Dr. Francine Berman, Patricia Limerick and Shelly Lowe are distinguished, prominent leaders in their respective fields of study and I look forward to their insights and contributions," William D. Adams, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said in a statement issued Monday. "Their expertise will help NEH strengthen and promote excellence in the humanities for all Americans."
Lowe will be sworn into her new position during an initial meeting in March.
"I was thrilled to learn about Shelly's most recent accomplishment," said John Paul Jones III, dean of the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. "We are proud that Shelly’s degrees in sociology and American Indian studies helped prepare her for her impressive work supporting Native American communities and that she is now in a position to advance the humanities on a national level."
As a member of the National Council on the Humanities, Lowe will help review grant applications and also advise the National Endowment for the Humanities chairman on recommendations for policies and programs.
"One of the important things about the NEH is that it strives to highlight the cultural history of this country, and creates tools to encourage learning about the American culture, language, writing and history," said Lowe, who, while completing her doctoral degree at the UA, is executive director of the Harvard University Native American Program. "I will also be thinking about opportunities for Native histories and Native languages and figuring out how we bring these more prominently into the larger conversations in America."
Lowe's close cousin, Amanda Tachine (Diné), received her White House honor in September. Both women grew up together on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona and both studied at the UA, ultimately pursuing doctoral degrees at the College of Education's Center for the Study of Higher Education.
And although Lowe knew of her own presidential nomination at the time of Tachine's award, she kept the news from her family and others, as required.
"I was dumbfounded. I don't think they knew we were related," said Lowe, who attended the ceremony in Washington, D.C., honoring Tachine and other recipients. Tachine earned her doctorate in May 2015, and now serves as a postdoctoral scholar at Arizona State University's Center for Indian Education.
Lowe, a two-time UA graduate already, began her studies in 1992 at the UA as a Flinn Scholar and Honors College student. For her thesis, she investigated the leadership qualities of American Indians in higher education, under the direction of Mary Jo Tippeconnic Fox, a research professor of American Indian studies. A sociology major, Lowe completed minor studies in American Indian studies.
Along with Fox, Lowe also credited the late Richard Kissling, former Honors College dean, and the current dean, Patricia MacCorquodale, for her personal development and also for her professional development as a scholar. In fact, Fox convinced Lowe to pursue a master's degree in American Indian studies, which Lowe completed in 2005.
"The University, even though it was such a foreign place for me, really created an atmosphere and environment that was very competitive if you were looking at places like Harvard and Yale," Lowe said. "The Honors College and the UA do a fabulous job preparing you."
After the UA, where Lowe also served as the graduate education program facilitator for American Indian studies, she took a position as Yale University's director and assistant dean of the Native American Cultural Center in 2007. She took her current position at Harvard in 2009, where she serves the American Indian student, faculty and alumni population while also helping to facilitate teaching and research projects throughout the campus related to Native and Indigenous peoples' issues.
For her dissertation work — under the direction of Gary Rhoades, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education — Lowe is studying how American Indian students present their identities when applying to college. Her work is meant to help practitioners better understand the discrepancy between the numbers of American Indian students that institutions believe they enroll as compared with the lower numbers of Native students who actually identify and participate in programs designed to support them.
Lowe has served on the boards of the National Indian Education Association and the National Museum of the American Indian, and has published numerous articles and co-edited a book on American Indian student transition and success. She also serves on the board of the Beantown Cats alumni chapter in Boston.
"One of the things Amanda said at her awards ceremony, and it's something many Natives say when we serve on boards, is that it is important to have Native voices and Native perspectives at the table," Lowe said. "I am honored to be able to say that there is someone at the table who is Native, and who understands the import contribution of Native cultures, Native history and Native representation."
Reflecting on her nomination from Obama, and Tachine's White House honor, Lowe said she and Tachine received strong foundational support and encouragement, which would ultimately lead to their academic and professional success.
"We were told that education is a tool, education is a ladder. Once you obtain it, it is something you can use to make things better for people by strengthening the community and bringing tools the community needs to continue to grow and prosper," said Lowe, a mother to five children, with one granddaughter.
"For the both of us, when we look at how we grew up — and not just in our families, but in our communities and on the Navajo Nation — we have to point back and say, 'You encouraged us and supported us. That's why we are where we are now.'"