A sterling example of the success and potential of the UA’s international dual Ph.D. program, sociology graduate student Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear has received a Health Policy Research Scholar Fellowship from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Desi is working toward a Ph.D. in sociology from the UA and a Ph.D. in demography from the University of Waikato in New Zealand. Desi’s primary research interest is Indigenous demography, that is, the process of defining, classifying and counting Indigenous peoples, which is a political and cultural endeavor, not simply a statistical one. She is also deeply invested in helping tribes collect data that helps them achieve their goals.
As part of her dissertation, Desi will survey the 567 recognized tribes in the United States, asking how they collect, store and manage data.
Desi was one of 40 scholars selected to be a Health Policy Research Scholar, a new leadership development program led by Johns Hopkins University and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Participating scholars are from communities that are traditionally underrepresented in doctoral programs and policy development.
The scholars will collaborate and innovate to solve persistent challenges and advance a “Culture of Health.” The award carries a stipend of $30,000 for 4 years, for a total value of $120,000.
“Before pervasive health inequities can be addressed, they must first be brought to light,” Desi said. “For Native peoples, and other hard-to-count populations, this starts with visibility. Good data yields visibility.”
Desi said American Indian communities have both an abundance and a paucity of data: They collect reams of data to meet reporting requirements for federal funds. But not much of that data helps them pursue their own vision. She says that “data sovereignty” is essential to the future of Native American communities.
Desi’s upbringing set the stage for her eventual career.
“I did not know that I was poor or that my experiences growing up on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in rural Montana were seriously skewed until I arrived at Stanford University as a 16-year old,” Desi said. “I graduated early from high school in order to save myself. My classmates were falling into despair, suicide, teenage parenthood, and addiction.”
After receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University, Desi was offered a research assistant position in New Zealand to help conduct surveys of a Maori tribal population. Desi also worked as an analyst and consultant for tribal policy for the Ministry of Maori Development.
While in New Zealand, Desi began working toward her Ph.D. at the University of Waikato, which has the only Indigenous demography program in the world.
Part way through the program, Desi decided she wanted to focus her research agenda on Native American tribes and communities in the United States. She went in search of a university that would allow her to obtain a dual Ph.D. A Google search later, she found the UA, which was building its international dual Ph.D. program and was eager to work with Desi.
Dale Lafleur, director of institutional relations at the UA Office of Global Initiatives, says the UA has more than 20 international dual degrees and transfer pathway programs. The custom dual degree for Desi is the first of its kind in the social sciences at the UA.
“One motivation for developing these international dual degrees programs is to provide students the opportunity to engage in learning from different cultural perspectives,” said Lafleur. “I am very pleased that the intrinsic value of this dual degree for Desi, and this field of research, has been recognized with this fellowship.”
As Desi was researching how to obtain an international dual Ph.D., she ran into UA sociologist Steve Cornell in the hallway of a tribal college in New Zealand. To Desi, the chance meeting with Cornell—who has spent most of his career working with Indigenous nations in North America, Australia and New Zealand—was another sign the UA was the right choice.
“Desi is one of a small group of academic researchers at the front edge of work on Indigenous data issues,” said Cornell, who is Desi’s advisor. “Desi brings to the task a terrific combination of experience in her own community, policy work with Maori tribes in New Zealand, an advising role with the U.S. Census Bureau, methodological skills, and a commitment to producing positive impacts in the real world.”
Desi is already one to watch. For three years, she’s been an advisor to the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, working as part of the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations. The only graduate student on the committee, Desi was selected based on her expertise and research of hard-to-count populations. Her appointment was just extended for another three years, which she says “shocked” her.
“I am very outspoken,” Desi said with a laugh. “I am adamant that the Census Bureau, and all federal agencies, work directly with tribal governments and communities to identify how to best count and classify Indigenous peoples and our realities in this country. The Census Bureau collects valuable data that is the cornerstone of the decisions this government makes.”
As a graduate research associate with the UA’s Native Nations Institute, Desi co-founded the U.S. Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network with Stephanie Rainie, the associate director of Native Nations Institute. Launched in April, the network already has more than 100 members and an advisory board that includes tribal leaders, academics and policy makers. Desi said one of the goals of the project is to create a “culture of data” among communities that have historically distrusted research.
Desi’s co-advisor Jane Zavisca, a professor in the School of Sociology and associate dean of research for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said, “In my 11 years at the UA, Desi is by far the most promising doctoral student I have encountered with potential to do transformative work on the culture of health. Desi will help to change the culture of health research on reservations to move from research on and about Native Americans, toward research with and for Native Americans.”