When graduating senior and Gold Axe winner Jewel Honga visited her reservation and presented to a classroom of Hualapai students in Peach Springs last April, she asked the students to raise their hands if they knew someone in college. A few hands went up.
She told them about her college experience. How just like them, she started her journey sitting in the same classroom in Peach Springs, playing on the same playground. And how she went on to attend NAU.
Then she asked them the same question again, and the same hands went up. “But this time,” she said, “I want you all to raise your hands because now you know me. You know someone in college and you can do it.”
Honga graduates from NAU this December with two bachelor’s degrees in business—marketing and management. Honga received the Gold Axe because of her significant contributions to the university and her service to tribal communities.
At NAU, she has led the university’s Native American Business Organization, developed an award-winning financial literacy game for Native American youth with the Center for American Indian Economic Development, earned the 2014 Miss Indian NAU title, and now serves as 2015 Miss Hualapai, acting as a tribal ambassador for the Hualapai.
Honga was born in Flagstaff, where her parents met and both graduated from NAU. Her mom is of the Navajo Nation and her dad is of the Hualapai Tribe.
She spent her primary and elementary school years on the reservation in Peach Springs, where she was enrolled in the Hualapai Head Start program through the fifth grade. She moved back to Flagstaff for middle school and high school, primarily because there is no high school facility on the reservation.
For as long as she can remember, her parents told her that she, too, would go to college.
“I realize that my mom and dad are a big part of my success today,” she said. “I also realize that other Native kids don’t have the same opportunities that I had. It’s what pushed me to get a better education, to come back and work for my people, with my people, and Native people in general. To try to create a better life for them.”
Honga was drawn to business management by her father’s work on the reservation. When she was young, he would give presentations to visiting groups about the Hualapai people, culture and tribal economy. He would often speak about the tribe’s high unemployment rate and the importance of job creation.
Today, Honga remains a presence on her reservation, even while attending classes three days a week at NAU. When she’s not in class, she’s working as a cashier in Peach Springs at the Walapai Market, commuting more than 100 miles to and from Flagstaff.
“People think it’s crazy that I travel so far just for work. But that’s my home, those are my people, and to me it’s important to remain visible to my community so that my community members know me and see me and can put a face to a name.”
Honga hopes her work on the reservation inspires the next generation of leaders. “My community is so open to helping me that in turn, I want to improve the lives of their grandkids, their nieces and nephews, because those kids are going to be future leaders for my kids.”
After graduation, she plans to work in different departments of the Hualapai owned and operated Grand Canyon Resort Corporation. She also has plans to run for a seat on her tribal council, with the ultimate goal of becoming her tribe’s chairwoman. And one day, she’d like to open up her own small business.
“If you’re willing to take a chance and leave the reservation to put in the work, the time and effort, so many opportunities come up and you have to take advantage of it. I hope other Native kids can see that and explore opportunities.”