Elizabeth Zangenberg was in her early 60s – a nontraditional student – when she first caught a glimpse of the Native American Student Center at University Plaza during her first-year orientation campus tour. She was uncertain if she was Native American enough or too Americanized to use the resources offered by the center, since the only thing she knew was that she was part Aleut, Eskimo and Russian.
When Zangenberg met the students and staff representing hundreds of tribes, she realized it was more important that she was part of a community that shared her heritage and took the opportunity to learn more about her culture.
“I had no idea about my background, but I went to the Native American Center to see what went on there,” Zangenberg said. “It’s really nice to learn something different from everyone. We hung out with each other and we enjoyed each other’s company, so that was important.”
Zangenberg graduated in 2018 with a degree in art history. To recognize the value of Cal Poly Pomona programs and centers, Zangenberg provided matching gifts of $2,000 each to four programs – the Native American Student Center, the NATIVE Pipeline, the John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies and the Veterans Resource Center – for the annual Giving Day campaign in April that supports scholarships, programs and resources across the university. The campaign raised $308,543 with 1,077 gifts, an increase of nearly 29 percent in the number of gifts over last year.
“It’s really important for people to think about the opportunities that college kids can have now and in the future,” Zangenberg said. “I’m really happy to think about the future and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Growing up in Long Beach, Zangenberg assumed from her facial features that she was of Japanese ancestry. She knew that her parents met at an internment camp during World War II, but she didn’t discover her actual family heritage until she was in her 20s, when her mom told her and her four siblings to be home at a specific time to watch a video on Alaska.
“She pops in this videotape and we were watching it like, ‘OK, Mom, this is of Alaska, what does this have to do with us?’” Zangenberg remembered. “Then she says, ‘You guys are Alaskan, you guys are Aleut!’”
Zangenberg learned from the video how her mom’s family came from a Native American tribe in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands. During World War II, the Aleut faced the same fate as Japanese people living in America – they were uprooted from their towns and placed in internment camps, in their case because of plane bombings and attacks between the Japanese and Americans in Alaska. After the war, families returned to their villages only to find them destroyed, forcing them to find a new home and land.
“My mom did not have the ability to tell us about her past because it was hard for her to talk about it,” Zangenberg said. “Maybe she did not want to rehash her past, or maybe she didn’t want us to suffer the same things she went through. My mom had to have been very strong to let us know about the interment in Alaska of the Aleuts during World War II.”
Zangenberg became more dedicated in learning about her culture by completing a Native American Studies minor, an area of study that was unheard of when she was younger. She became so engrossed in her family history that, instead of attending commencement, she participated in a culture camp in Alaska, where she stayed with her cousin, took language classes and sang cultural songs.
“I was going back and learning about my culture’s treasures,” Zangenberg said. “It’s going to be a while before I get up to speed.”
Zangenberg was coy about her life experiences, defining herself as a “late bloomer.” But she was inspired to go to college after seeing her friend earn a master’s degree in calculus at Cal Poly Pomona while raising a child. Zangenberg thought how her friend’s daughter would be more motivated to attend college after seeing her mom succeed.
“It’s a privilege to go to a university, and I thought never in my life would I ever go,” Zangenberg said. “If Cal Poly Pomona accepted me, then they’re thinking I can be successful. So I’ll listen to that.”
The NATIVE Pipeline program supports the academic achievement and success of Native American students to become leaders in their industries, and includes high school mentorship opportunities, financial assistance to more than 100 Native American CPP students, and annual programs and events.
“I would like to see more students coming in from the local high schools and thinking that it’s not impossible to go to college,” Zangenberg said. “There was nothing like this when I was going to school.”
Zangenberg also served 10 years in the National Guard, inspired by her three older brothers who had joined. She came across the Veteran’s Resource Center, instantly felt welcomed and connected with other veterans.
The allure of the Lyle Center’s solar panels first caught her eye from the bus stop on Temple Avenue. Following her curiosity, she trekked up the driveway that led to the center and discovered a 16-acre living laboratory in which students explore sustainability and regenerative theories to develop innovative solutions to environmental challenges. She fell in love with the greenery and peace she found on top of the hill.
“If you feel that you gained something from going here, then definitely think about giving to one of the programs you were interested in,” Zangenberg said. “You would want people in the future to continue to have something like this.”
Visit https://www.cpp.edu/~giving/ to find programs, resources and opportunities at Cal Poly Pomona to support.