ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Growth of the Native American studies program at the University of New Mexico has been in the works for years. Developing a master’s degree was only natural.

“We really focus on developing the kinds of skills we think our communities and organizations would need from master’s degree students,” said Tiffany Lee, Diné/Lakota and chair of UNM’s Native American studies program. She says those skills include advanced research, critical thinking and problem solving.

Now, the school’s first students in the master’s program are new grads. The school says they’re taking the tools learned out into the community.

“Instead of a traditional master’s thesis, the students work with a community or an organization on a project in collaboration,” said Lee. “So, something of need from that community.”

Micha Bitsinnie is one of those recent graduate students. She’s taking her new education to teach indigenous history and do policy work in education.

“That program had given me so much more tangible, insightful understanding of where are people have been historically,” said Bitsinnie, who is also Diné. “Also, the policies that have been implemented.”

One of those people involved in the program since its inception is senior student success specialist, Catherine Montoya, also Diné. She says she looks forward to seeing where these graduates — and the department — go next.

“It was wonderful to see these master’s students just thrive in the program and graduate,” said Montoya. Meanwhile, Lee says this first group of seven graduates will continue to shape how the program develops.

“They really helped us to understand how to shape it more, based off of their experiences,” said Lee. Much of the master’s program is taught virtually, so even out-of-state students can get this crucial education. They hope to expand the virtual capabilities in the future.

The university is also working to get a doctorate program in Native American studies, in the near future. If created, it will make them one of only four schools in the country to offer a doctoral degree on the subject.

The inaugural master’s degree class began their program in the Fall 2018 semester. This year’s graduates include Albert Abeita, Leiloni Begaye, Micha Dayzie-Bitsinnie, Janiece Garcia, Nathan Jopek, Caitlynn Mayhew and Nicole Swentzell.