When Sarah De Herrera sang the national anthem in her native Choctaw at the presidential Investiture in February, she felt as though it was the crescendo of her Cal Poly Pomona experience.
But the show isn’t over just yet for the soon-to-be College of Business Administration graduate, who received a prestigious Native American award just weeks before Commencement.
De Herrera was selected as one of the “25 Under 25 Native Youth Leaders,” a recognition that is bestowed once every two years by the United National Indian Tribal Youth Inc. (UNITY). She is a member of the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma and also a board member and ambassador for the Okla Chahta Clan of California Inc.
“This is a really big honor. No member of my Choctaw tribe has ever received this,” De Herrera says. “I’m the first.”
She will be presented with the award at the National UNITY Conference on July 22 in Oklahoma City. As part of the leadership award, she will give a presentation to 2,000 people who are expected to attend the event.
When De Herrera receives her bachelor’s degree in management and human resources with a minor in Native American studies, she will do so as a trailblazer. She will be the first graduate of the Natives Aiming to Inspire Values in Education (NATIVE) pipeline program.
There are more than 100 Native American tribes in California, but a scant 1 percent of their 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 and the Pathways to Graduation program, which is part of the College of Education & Integrative Studies, were started with a $150,000 gift from alumnus Don Huntley (’60, animal husbandry). The aim of the pipeline is to introduce Native American students in junior high and high school to college and instill in them a mindset that higher education is within reach.
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 worked in the Native American Student Center and became an ambassador for the program by mentoring high school students in the summer pipeline program.
“Cal Poly Pomona has played a very important role in my educational journey,” De Herrera says. “It has made me more humble. It has made me realize where my strengths and weaknesses are.”
De Herrera was recruited for the pipeline program before her junior year at the Academy of the Canyons Middle College High School in Santa Clarita. She was already taking courses in community college as part of her high school curriculum. By the time De Herrera graduated, she had completed 42 transferable college-level semester units.
Because of the university’s outreach efforts, she decided to attend Cal Poly Pomona and became one of the first participants in the pipeline program.
“One of the things that attracted me to Cal Poly Pomona was the Native American Student Center. But Dr. Sandy Kewanhaptewa-Dixon was the biggest reason,” De Herrera says. “I knew I would have someone there, and my mom felt much more comfortable with that.”
Kewanhaptewa-Dixon (Hopi) is an associate professor in the ethnic and women’s studies department at CEIS and oversees the pipeline program.
“Sarah has been an outstanding role model. When I first met Sarah at the Native American Pipeline as one of our first participants, I saw qualities that stood out among her peers,” Kewanhaptewa-Dixon said. “She demonstrated enthusiasm for learning, a sense of appreciation for any opportunities that came by her way and a compassion to collaborate and be of service. I am very proud of Sarah and grateful that I have had the privilege and honor to work with one of our future leaders of tomorrow.”
A special symbol will be attached to her mortarboard when she crosses the stage. One of De Herrera’s tribal elders gave her an eagle feather, a traditional sign of leadership among the Choctaw, to adorn her graduation cap.
De Herrera is examining her options after graduation. A part of her wants to pursue an MBA at the University of Rochester in New York. Another part would like to get a political internship in Washington, D.C., in summer 2017. Yet another part wants to join the Peace Corps.
“That’s really something I have trouble with. It’s really difficult,” De Herrera says. “It’s one of those things where I feel like there’s something I want to be, and I believe whether it’s a role or opportunity that comes along, that’s going to be the way I can be an agent for change within my community and the United States.”
Before De Herrera heads down that road, an encore performance at the university awaits. She’ll once again sing the national anthem, this time at the CBA Commencement on June 11 to thousands of classmates, family and friends.
“I had always wanted to do it. I’m so happy about it,” De Herrera says. “I get to sing for so many people. It’s going to be one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had.”