Rebekah McNiel, a member of the Honors College and the Interdisciplinary Global Program (IGP) at Northern Arizona University, has been recognized for her outstanding achievements as the 2023 recipient of the prestigious Udall Scholarship for Native American Initiatives. The Udall Foundation awards scholarships to college students for leadership, public service and commitment to issues related to Native American nations or the environment. McNiel is a business management and modern languages dual major with an emphasis in Spanish. Her passion for positively impacting the Navajo Nation drives her commitment to studying sustainable business practices and languages.
“I chose business management to gain the tools needed to help my community grow and I chose to learn Spanish because it is spoken all over the world, providing me with more opportunities to learn from others,” McNiel said.
Growing up in Gallup, New Mexico, and choosing to study at NAU, McNiel developed a deep connection to her Navajo heritage. She came to NAU in Fall 2020 when COVID-19 was still a concern because it was the closest university to her home.
“I wanted to be close to my family in case anything happened,” McNiel said. “It also helped that the campus is beautiful and there are lots of areas to go hiking and enjoy nature.”
McNiel felt compelled to pursue higher education to gain the necessary knowledge and skills to drive positive change after witnessing her community’s limited job opportunities and economic challenges firsthand. She began working at NAU’s Native American Cultural Center (NACC) and made significant strides not only in her academic and professional journey but in her personal journey.
“Before going to NAU, I did not know a lot about my own Navajo culture,” McNiel said. “Working at the NACC and helping the elders has helped me get more connected with my culture and be even more proud of where I come from.”
Shirley Conrad, program manager for the Office of Native American Initiatives, noted McNiel’s enthusiasm and eagerness to learn about the Elders Program at the NACC and her willingness to lend a helping hand or to take extra shifts when the center was short-handed.
“Her work did not go unnoticed, and she shows dedication and commitment to the NACC and the program areas she’s worked in,” Conrad said. “She enjoyed working with the elders for all their events at the NACC and ensured they were well taken care of.”
McNiel’s proudest accomplishment at NAU is her work at the NACC, where she assists local elders with their presentations and workshops. This involvement has allowed her to foster connections within the NAU community while deepening her own understanding and appreciation of her Navajo culture.
“One presentation that I helped with researching and putting together was this year’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples presentation,” McNiel said. “It opened my eyes to the injustice and underrepresentation that Indigenous people face, and during the presentation, the elders were there to be supportive and offer advice on how to handle those sensitive and tough situations.”
NAU has played a pivotal role in preparing McNiel to achieve her career and life aspirations—from the programs offered to the supportive faculty to the IGP, she has been able to prepare for her future goals. McNiel expressed deep gratitude for the guidance provided by faculty and staff who have supported her journey, including Conrad and Andrew Parkes, associate teaching professor at The W. A. Franke College of Business. “Each of them has encouraged and supported me with anything I have set out to do,” McNiel said. “They have let me know time and time again that they are there for me and cheering me on!”
Trials and travels
Throughout her academic journey, McNiel encountered unique and challenging experiences that shaped her character and perspective. During her first year at NAU, COVID-19 required adapting to online learning, recalling it was a struggle and a transformative moment that enhanced her resilience, global awareness and adaptability.
“That was difficult because there weren’t a lot of opportunities to meet people or events to go to that weren’t online,” McNiel said. “I managed to make friends in my classes and connect with them outside of class, which helped me get through the difficult situation.”
Parkes said McNiel was an excellent student and hard worker who was a joy to have in class.
“McNiel was the best student in my economics classes over the pandemic and was one of only two students who showed up almost every day during the Spring 2021 class—mask-mandated time,” Parkes said. “Writing very intuitive papers and excelling on exams, I asked her to be my grader the following semester.”
Beyond her academic pursuits, McNiel engaged in community service projects as a Global Citizens Project Scholar, instilling a curiosity in language and traveling to experience other cultures. She volunteered in Ecuador, a transformative experience that fostered her personal growth, self-confidence and openness to new experiences.
Through the IGP, McNiel has been offered the unique opportunity to study abroad in Madrid, Spain. She aims to gain firsthand knowledge of new business strategies and their implementations.
“I chose Madrid because it is a large city, I have read many stories about Madrid and its culture and I have never lived in a large city, so this will be an interesting change for me,” McNiel said. “Being in Madrid will also be a great opportunity to learn more about how businesses are done there compared to the United States.”
She is eager to explore the city’s renowned landmarks and learn about its business practices, hoping to gain valuable insights to contribute to her community’s growth and prosperity. Her course choices and participation in IGP stem from her desire to explore sustainable business practices, travel and learn from a diverse range of individuals throughout the world to bring that knowledge back to the Navajo Nation.
McNiel helps at her parents’ laundromats and convenience stores on the Navajo Nation, currently, the only place for families to clean their clothes or get gas. She acknowledges her parents as her strongest influences in life; their hard work and integrity have instilled in her the values she believes are necessary for success. While continuing their legacy, which she credits for providing services and jobs for locals, she hopes to keep expanding community opportunities.
“From these jobs, people are learning new skills which can help them in their next job—for me, that is my goal,” McNiel said. “Giving people the opportunity to learn more skills so that they can go to their dream job well-prepared.”
McNiel plans to address specific challenges her community faces on the Navajo Nation by using her business management and Spanish degrees to enhance the practices of financing businesses on the Navajo Nation and what she termed a “lack of transparency.” McNiel’s long-term vision includes establishing a mentorship program for aspiring Navajo entrepreneurs, empowering them with the knowledge and skills necessary for success. She envisions providing more job opportunities and fostering skill development, ultimately preparing individuals for their desired career paths.
McNiel’s ambitious spirit extends to her personal plans, which include going on a cross-country road trip, witnessing the northern lights and taking her parents to visit Ireland. On a day off, though, she finds joy closer to home by reading, baking, spending time with her dog, Honey Bee, in the garden and exploring thrift shops in town—ideally while sipping an iced coffee.
“The Udall Scholarship has impacted my academic and personal journey by showing me that there are always new opportunities and experiences to go after and that there are also people willing to help along the way,” McNiel said. “It has made me more confident in myself and in achieving my goals.”
Cynthia Gerber | NAU Communications
(928) 523-7341 | Cynthia.Gerber@nau.edu