Sasānēhsaeh Pyawasay is an enrolled member of the Menominee Nation from the Menominee Indian Reservation of Wisconsin. She attended UW–Madison as an undergraduate majoring in Sociology and American Indian Studies and continued to earn a master’s degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA) in 2009. She then earned a PhD at the University of Minnesota in Organizational Leadership Policy and Development with an emphasis on higher education. Pyawasay now works as the UW System’s first ever Native American Student Success Coordinator.
Tell us about your path from getting your PhD to the role you’re in now.
I loved the Twin Cities, I loved Minneapolis, but I really missed home and in particular my family. In this role, I’m able to both work with the 12 Native Nations in Wisconsin and also work with the university system campuses. It blended both my worlds really well and, again, I was looking for a reason to come back home. That’s kind of what brought me here. Family has been super important to me, community has been super important to me, and I’d been away for such a long time that it was just time to come home.
What is a typical day in your role as the Native American Student Success Coordinator?
A lot of my day is either connecting and building relationships with any of the 13 campuses across Wisconsin or connecting and building relationships with any of the 12 Native Nations in Wisconsin, Tribal colleges, or any of the varying Native-affiliated organizations in Wisconsin. A lot of it is relationship building right now: answering questions, making connections, really building a structure so both the UW campuses and the Native Nations can work together to serve Native students better.
A lot of the work for me is challenging educational institutions to understand their own ways in which they may not serve particular communities in a helpful way. Sometimes educational institutions look to themselves for answers, but I think oftentimes it’s helpful to build relationships with people from those communities to really guide those decisions and to be more informed on what is needed. I think sometimes we have a very narrow view about what we deem as “student success” and what we deem as helpful characteristics or skills for students, particularly when I’m thinking about Native students, but those Nations and those communities know better. They know best [about] what they need. Are we preparing those graduates to come back and serve their communities in a way that’s helpful for those communities? My hope in this position is to decrease that gap of understanding between educational institutions and communities.
What do you like about this job? What is challenging?
I really appreciate being home and working not only with my home community but also working with the Native communities that I’ve grown up with around me, and just being back in Wisconsin. It really gives me a good feeling to be able to go travel for work, to go sit and talk with Tribal leaders and elders and students about their experiences, and also just being able to create better places for Native students to be in, in college. During my interview for my current job, I got really emotional because I was imagining [that] this place is really wanting to honor who I am as a Native woman. Also, I thought about my nieces and my nephews and thought that, yeah, the UW System really wants to do this in a good way – and that felt really good to me. Being able to blend not only my professional experiences but me as a person has been awesome.
The challenging part is, it can be a lot of work if you’re trying to build relationships. It’s building them in very authentic spaces, traveling both to the campuses and to the Nations, and really spending that time… because I believe that’s the only way real work can get done. Often, at education institutions that relationship building maybe isn’t prioritized in a way that allows you to just sit with people and get to know them, because we move so fast sometimes that we really just want immediate results. Fortunately, here at the UW System, I’ve been super supported to do that. They recognize the value in relationship building. Building from the beginning is really hard; there are times that we haven’t done right by these Nations and re-building that will take time.
What kinds of things did you do as a student that you believe made you competitive as a candidate for this role?
For me what was important was to be involved in the community I was in. When I was in Minneapolis, being part of different Native organizations outside of the institution was helpful to really get out of the academic setting, and really getting out into the Native communities and understanding their experiences.
Also, I think my experiences translating my research and work [were] really significant for me. After I finished my PhD, I worked for about a year at the University of Minnesota. I taught, as an adjunct faculty, a couple of graduate classes. Then people would want to hear more about my research and so they would ask me to come do a keynote or presentation on my work. I think those things were really helpful because they helped me really understand how to translate my research into different settings, into different audiences, and to really be able to put my dissertation into practice in different ways. Sometimes you can get really stuck into your own, one university… so it helps to see different academic spaces and contexts.
What advice do you have for current graduate students interested in this type of career?
I think for folks who do higher education work, it’s really helpful if they are able to figure out how to translate [theory] to practice. So, if that means having an assistantship where you’re putting that into practice or if it’s research that you’re putting into practice… get that day-to-day experience within higher education. It’s helpful when you can marry that practical experience with the academic experience, but also similarly get out into communities and see how higher education has affected them in different ways as well.