By Shania Valentine, secondary education major, minor in philosophy

Starting at NAU as a freshman in 2013, I was apprehensive, overwhelmed and at a loss in finding comfort on campus. I would often feel isolated and different being from a multitude of cultures and identities: first-generation college student, biracial, Native American and a new citizen of Flagstaff.

I questioned my choice of going to college, I questioned my responsibilities toward my family and I questioned my ability to succeed.

It was difficult finding balance, knowing that I was so far from my family and traditions. That is, until I found my home away from home.

As a sophomore, I became a Peer Teaching Assistant and mentor for Native American Student Services without knowing the satisfaction I would find within it. I also became the campus-based leader for the Gates Millennium Scholars organization. Both positions are housed in and involve the Native American Cultural Center and Native American Student Services.

Throughout the year, I grew close to my coworkers and the advisors at the center who come from a variety of Native American and Native Hawaiian backgrounds. I also had the chance to connect with my mentees who come from different backgrounds, tribes, and ethnicities as well. After spending the majority of my time in this building, I realized the warm support I was looking for was here the whole time.

The Native American Cultural Center hosts cultural events that share traditions. Because of the inclusivity, I was comfortable right away, and I no longer felt so different from my peers. We all celebrate our own cultures while seeking to learn more from each other. At the same time, many of the events that include traditional food or knowledge remind me of being with my own family.

I was able to find a balance in being away from home since I was now connecting with other people who share their culture with me. I also found myself calling home to learn more about our traditions so I could share the love and fondness I have for my family.

I couldn’t have found a better support system than the cultural center and program I work for. The center is more than a building: it’s a plethora of caring people willing to listen and who encourage success for our students here at NAU. I owe a huge thank you to all the people who have influenced me both culturally and academically. Ahéhee’.

Editor’s note: November is Native American Heritage Month with activities planned at NAU.