2020 Inspiring Women | Lori Tapahonso

Posted by on Oct 5, 2020 | Comments Off on 2020 Inspiring Women | Lori Tapahonso

Lori Tapahonso is a citizen of the Navajo Nation (Diné) and also raised as Acoma Pueblo from New Mexico. She is currently the Native American Student Program Coordinator at Lane Community College where she teaches Native American leadership college courses and produces a summer youth college-readiness program for Native high school students in Oregon. She is also the Lead Longhouse Steward at Lane.

What advice would you give to a young girl or to your younger self?
That’s always a tricky question. When we’re young, we feel like we have it all figured out… at least I did. I had a hard time taking advice. When I think back, I had a lot of awesome folks around me that had great advice. I also had a tough time finding my way as a kid at times. I was a little hard-headed. I could’ve really helped myself by putting good advice to use. So maybe that’s something I’d tell my younger self… listen and honor the gift of wise words from others. Today, I’m asked what I think, or how I got through this and that. I give honest and real advice whenever I can. The way I look at it, I’ve made so many mistakes in life and have had to learn lessons the hard way. If I can give someone else some advice based on the lessons I’ve learned, then maybe they can avoid the same mistakes I made. Then one day, I hope they’ll do the same for others.

What do you love/enjoy about your profession?
To answer this, you have to know a little bit about my younger life. I struggled in school as a kid. I also went to about 6 different schools growing up. So, I was always having to start over and make new friends and figure out the new school. I didn’t have the best relationship with education from an early age. When I got to college, I did much better academically, but socially I didn’t always make the best decisions. I had my oldest daughter before I graduated. Then, I dropped out of college at 24 with a 1.80 GPA, two daughters, and a divorce on the horizon. It was a tough time. I didn’t go back to school until I was in my mid-30s. I had a Native advisor at the University of Kansas that really helped me get back into school. She found me funding and was always checking in on me to make sure I was doing ok. I really credit her with helping me regain my educational confidence.

Because of her and other inspiring mentors, I have chosen this path in life- working with Indigenous college/college-bound students. I love the idea that they KNOW they have someone to help them, to talk with, to celebrate their accomplishments with. Again, my past academic struggles have not been for nothing. I want to use every ounce to inspire and encourage Indigenous to be their best selves, the first time around.  

How have you been dealing with quarantine?
It’s been a real struggle, personally because I’m a major extrovert. It has been hard to have to get used to a new normal for the time being. Our Covid-era has given me valuable some time to reconnect with friends and family in new ways – more calls, Zoom, and even letter writing. It has also given me time to begin working on some of my favorite pastimes, like making jewelry, acting, and writing. I guess because of Covid, I’ve become more aware of how I use my time. I’ve also become more appreciative of everything and everyone that I may have taken for granted before Covid. That is the silver lining.

What creative avenues have you used to continue your important work at LCC?
Our Covid-era has allowed me to connect to more of my LCC students virtually. There are no schedule conflicts, or ride issues in attending meetings. So, me and my students can all check-in more regularly. Using virtual meeting platforms will continue as long as we’re remote. It will also be a great way to keep our students included in the future who can’t physically be at meetings now that we’re all more familiar and confident with virtual meeting platforms. That’s one way that the Covid-era has been a blessing. We’re more connected now that ever.

What is a challenge you’ve faced and how have you overcome it?
In my younger life, I faced a good deal of abuse. I’ve had a hard time trusting people. And, I had to figure out my way back to a healthy life more than once. In my journey, I’ve relied on counselors, therapists, and trusted family and friends to motivate and encourage me. I remember thinking I would never be able to go back to college after I dropped out. My GPA was so low. It took me 8 years to go back, and even then, I was scared, but I wanted to go back so badly. I remember making my decision during the Christmas season before classes started back up in January. I woke up and decided that I was going to finish college. I had 1 year left to get my bachelor’s degree. I didn’t tell anyone, except my advisor, because I didn’t want to disappoint them if I wasn’t allowed to return. I had to appeal to the University for admission and tell them why I should be allowed to return.

More than once I had thoughts of giving up because I felt I was in over my head. But, each day I forced myself to move forward. January rolled around and I just started attending classes. My advisor helped me figure out a schedule and helped me to know what to say to my professors. Afterall, I was attending their classes without actually being a student. She was my motivator when I couldn’t motivate myself. At my readmittance hearing a month after the semester began, the University asked how I was preparing to be successful this time around. I told them I had already made a personal commitment by purchasing my books and attending classes with the permission of my professors. I showed them a folded piece of paper with each one’s signature. I was readmitted on probation. I graduated with honors by the end of that year with my bachelor’s degree.

Looking back, I was actually my biggest motivator all along. The point when I made up my mind and changed my perspective, was the point when I wasn’t going to let anyone, or any circumstance stand in my way. I use that story a lot to demonstrate to students, and even my daughters that there are really no obstacles that we can’t overcome… sometimes with help, sometimes on our own. When we’re faced with situations that seem impossible, sometimes the only thing we can change is our perspective. Once we do, we can begin to see opportunity. And, life is full of opportunity, our job is to find it.

Who inspires you?
There are so many people in my life that inspire me to do good each and every day – my daughters, my husband, my parents, my siblings, my dear friends, my students, my tribal communities… the list can go on and on. But, when I really think about who I represent in the work I do, in the way I treat people, in the life I lead, it would be my grandparents. My grandfather lived to be 101 years old. He took his father to enroll him in school as a child, where he was given his English name, Eugene Tapahonso. He attended school until the 8th grade. He served in WWI and spoke more than 5 languages. He was an esteemed leader in our home community of Shiprock, New Mexico. He exemplified leadership.

My grandmother, Lucille Deschene Tapahonso is the matriarch of our family. My primary tribal clan is carried on from her, her mother, her mother’s mother and so on. She is who I am. She taught us to treat visitors as family and to make sure that we cared for each other at all costs. She made sure growing up that we knew in the Diné way there were no aunts, uncles or cousins; we are each other’s children, brothers and sisters. To this day, I speak to my vast family all over the country almost daily. We rely on each other and know that we’re never truly alone in this world. My grandparents are who inspire me to live a life of honor, compassion and one that seeks knowledge at every turn.