In October, 2016 Dr. Heather Shotton, a Native American studies professor at Oklahoma University, was named Educator of the Year by the National Indian Education Association.
Shotton’s areas of expertise and interests include indigenous women, indigenous leadership and indigenous higher education. Shotton has received numerous accolades, including the Outstanding Research Award in 2015, which was presented by the NASPA Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community; she was also named to the Native American 40 Under 40 Class of 2013 by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.
During her 2012-2013 term as president of the National Indian Education Association, the 40-year-old wife and mother of two spoke for thousands on Native education issues.
Heather – who is an enrolled Wichita, Kiowa and Cheyenne – was one of a handful of Native American students in a predominantly white town of Terrell, Texas with a population of 15,000.
Her first job when she was 13, was helping out at the dental office where her mother worked.
“I wanted to contribute to something bigger than myself. I think it comes from that sense of responsibility to do better. There’s a responsibility to other people.”
To Heather’s mother, Pam Haskell, that responsibility is familiar. The mother was raised with three siblings, selling flower seeds door to door to contribute to the family income.
“IF YOU WANTED SOMETHING, YOU WORKED FOR IT,” SHE SAID. “THAT’S HOW I WAS RAISED, AND THAT’S HOW I RAISED MY KIDS. THAT’S ALL WE KNEW.”
At age 17, Heather won the title of “Terrell Young Woman of the Year,” which came with a full-ride scholarship to a local junior college. But she wanted more than that. “She said, ‘Mom, I don’t wanna go to junior college — I wanna go to OU.”
When applying for her Ph.D., she clearly recalls hearing the student next to her respond to the question, “Why are you in the doctoral program?”
“Well, everyone in my family’s a doctor, so it’s kind of the natural thing to do in my family,” the other student said. “You either become a professor or a doctor.”
Heather, whose father, mother and stepfather held a single college degree among them, wanted to laugh.
“It was so bizarre to me,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow. Everyone in your family is a doctor of some sort, and you’re doing this because that’s just what’s expected. ”
“I understood what being first generation was, but I think it was the first time I ever experienced that, wow, there are these people around me who come from generations of professional degrees, and this is nothing to them,” she said. “That was the first time it hit me in the face.”
“Sometimes we don’t know why we’re presented with the challenges that we are. But, for me, I’ve come to understand that it’s so you can help someone else.”
“Why on a large scale do we care about high school dropouts?” she asks. “There’s a real danger there when you don’t see yourself represented,” she said. “When you don’t see yourself reflected in your learning, how are you supposed to value yourself ?”