Eagle Spirit Award recipient honored for hard work, dedication toward enhancing lives of Indigenous peoples

Friday, December 18, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Arizona State University PhD graduate Charlene Poola’s hard work and dedication toward enhancing the lives of Native peoples won her recognition from the internationally recognized Heard Museum, which focuses on American Indian art.

Poola received her PhD degree in social work this month. But when she first arrived in Phoenix, adjusting to her new surroundings initially proved difficult. Poola, who is Navajo and Hopi-Tewa, said she felt out of her element when she moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Phoenix because she knew no one and was in pursuit of obtaining her doctorate from the ASU School of Social Work.

“I was moving to a new city alone and I felt isolated, but I knew from talking to other friends and colleagues to put yourself out there and ask for help and ask for that social and emotional support,” said Poola, who was presented with the Heard Museum Eagle Spirit Award. “Dr. Felicia Mitchell, who is an Indigenous scholar, had just started at ASU as I came into the program in 2016, so I developed a relationship with her. … She was my mentor and I really hung on tight to (her) to help me maneuver my academic program, because everything was new.”

Poola said networking and making connections was an important part in feeling more comfortable at ASU. It was important because it opened doors to certain research projects and it got her name out there, she said.

“I was coming from New Mexico where it’s considered a minority-majority state, that means that over half of our population is either Latino and/or American Indian,” she said. “I think what helped as a person of color, was connecting to American Indian Support Services, or to those who come from a Latinx background.”

In making these connections and communicating with her mentor, Poola realized the importance of pursuing research that she is passionate about because “that passion is going to motivate you and inspire you when things get a little tough or when things get political. It really pushes you forward and makes you find those avenues to get it done.”

Poola is passionate about American Indian behavioral health research. She works to adapt evidence-based treatments to ensure they are a cultural fit for tribal programs. 

The Heard Museum Eagle Spirit Award is presented each semester to two Native graduate students. It recognizesa  student's dedication to American Indian communities through service, volunteering and academic achievement in their fields of study.

Read on to learn more about Poola, her educational journey and what research she hopes to conduct in the future:

Question: Tell us a little about yourself today and your early years.

Answer: I am graduating with a PhD in social work. I am Navajo and Hopi-Tewa. I temporarily relocated to Phoenix from Albuquerque to complete my two years of coursework, and my husband stayed in Albuquerque. We made a commitment to see each other every two weeks so one of us was commuting back and forth. My last year of my coursework he was doing more of the commuting. This was a sacrifice we both made so I could obtain my PhD. Once I completed my coursework in 2018, I moved back to Albuquerque to complete the remainder of my PhD program.

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: I knew I wanted to help people when I saw my mom advocate for our elders in the community so they could have access to water and wood to heat their homes. Back then, a vast majority of my family lived on the reservation and my mom would always go to chapter meetings and ask for assistance for her elderly relatives. She would not leave until she got an answer.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because it’s near my home community, Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have lived in New Mexico for over 40 years. There is no social work doctoral program in New Mexico, so the next state over had one and I applied. I wanted to obtain a PhD degree after my MSW degree, but I thought I needed more clinical practice experience. I worked towards my clinical social work license (LCSW), which meant I needed to obtain two years of clinical experience and one year of clinical supervision postgraduation. After I received my LCSW license, life and work took over, so I focused on addressing American Indian behavioral health disparities in urban and tribal communities in New Mexico. After 10 years of work, it was time to return to school to learn about the effectiveness of cultural adaptations of evidence-based treatments for American Indian populations. How culturally relevant are these adaptations for American Indians?

Q: What do you hope to do with your degree?

A: I plan to apply for a tenured faculty position that serves American Indian populations. I want to continue my research on cultural adaptations of evidence-based treatments and workforce development.

Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Felicia Mitchell taught me a valuable lesson: Just because most of the students do not look like me or think like me, does not mean I do not belong. She taught me to work hard and continue to tell my story of how I got into the program. She encouraged me to apply for the Council on Social Work Education Minority Fellowship Program to help me financially remain in the doctorate program. I received the minority fellowship in 2017 and it helped me focus on my studies and reduced the financial strains.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those students following behind you?

A: To obtain a PhD degree, students must be committed to doing the coursework and be passionate about their dissertation topic. That passion will drive students to complete their dissertation because they are motivated about the topic they want to share with the world.

Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned at ASU — about yourself, about what you’re studying, anything — that came to you as a complete surprise?

A: I learned I can do statistics with support from a tutor. I needed extra time out of the classroom to thoroughly understand and practice the steps using Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) software. It was amazing to learn how to use statistics in research and how important it is to summarize the information being collected on a certain topic.

Q: What is something you think would surprise people to learn about you?

A: I am somewhat of a hermit. I felt I had to constantly study because I had been out of school for over 13 years. My study and writing skills were rusty. I had to learn how to use the ASU online platform to access my syllabus, financial aid, grades and upload assignments. It was a whole new system that was intimidating to learn, but I got through it.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: (I would) focus on American Indian behavioral health disparities and elevate workforce development to enhance our sense of well-being and pride in our communities.

Q: What’s your life motto in one sentence?

A: Live life and have fun doing it!

Written by Morgan Carden of the ASU School of Social Work. Photo courtesy of Charlene Poola