The first time that President Soraya M. Coley heard the dynamic voice of Sarah De Herrera, she told the singer that she wanted her to perform at the next presidential event.
That pledge was kept as De Herrera, who is studying business administration, took the stage at the biggest presidential event: The colorful and tradition-filled Investiture of President Coley that drew nearly 1,400. De Herrera opened the ceremony by singing the national anthem in her native Choctaw tribal language.
“To be part of the ceremony was an exciting experience and to be the first person to sing in my own language and to be there representing Native American students was a really big deal,” De Herrera says. “Even now, I’m still taking it all in.”
De Herrera’s turn in the spotlight also was symbolic because she will be the first graduate of the Natives Aiming to Inspire Values in Education (NATIVE) pipeline program in the College of Education & Integrative Studies.
The pipeline program and the Pathways to Graduation program were started four years ago with a $150,000 gift from alumnus Don Huntley (’60, animal husbandry). The aim of the pipeline is to introduce college to Native American students in junior high and high school and instill a mindset that higher education is within reach. Native American students account for a fraction of the enrollment at Cal Poly Pomona.
“It’s a big honor. It’s one of those things I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren,” says De Herrera, who is the Okla Chahta Clan of California ambassador. “I’ll be the first in my family to have an accredited degree.”
De Herrera was introduced to the pipeline program four years ago before her junior year at the Academy of the Canyons Middle College High School in Santa Clarita. Because of the university’s outreach efforts, she decided to attend Cal Poly Pomona and became a member of the pipeline program, which is housed in the College of Education & Integrative Studies.
Well before De Herrera became immersed in the pipeline program, she was already making enormous academic strides. She was taking courses in community college when she was 14 as part of her high school program. By the time De Herrera graduated from high school, she had completed 42 transferable college-level semester units.
De Herrera says she also took as many summer school courses as she could at Cal Poly Pomona to accelerate her graduation date. That work has paid off. De Herrera will be 21 when she graduates in December with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a focus on management and human resources.
In addition, the pipeline program is in the process of setting up an internship at Disney this summer for De Herrera.
“We’re very, very proud of Sarah and the work that she’s done. She’s representing our Native American community, her tribe, the Choctaw people, and the NATIVE pipeline very well,” says Sandy Kewanhaptewa-Dixon (Hopi), an associate professor in the ethnic and women’s studies department in the College of Education & Integrative Studies.
Of the more than 100 tribes in California, a scant 1 percent of those members will attend college. Since its inception, the program has enrolled about 25 students each academic year and now totals nearly 100. The pipeline, which has a retention rate of 80 percent, aims to attract more Native Americans to seek higher education.
The pipeline program is the only one of its kind in the California State University system, and provided De Herrera with the academic and personal support she needed as a Native American student. In addition to her studies, De Herrera works in the Native American Student Center and has become a role model and ambassador by mentoring high school students in the summer pipeline program.
“That’s a lot of good pressure,” De Herrera says. “It helps me stay on course and realize the higher purpose that we are all sharing by pursuing a higher education.”