UMN banner hanging in the Spring

The Office for Equity and Diversity (OED) asked students, faculty and staff on campus to talk about the importance of Women’s History Month, in their own words, through the lenses of their identities and experiences. 

Meet Sasānēhsaeh Pyawasay

Pyawasay is the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering Diversity Coordinator. In her role, she supports underrepresented students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, especially students of color and American Indian students.

She is also a Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, where her emphasis is on Higher Education and her research focuses on how institutions are sites of colonization for native students. Pyawasay has been in Minnesota and on-campus for about seven years, but is originally from the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin.

Here is Pyawasay’s perspective in her own words:

In the context of Women’s History Month, honestly, when I was reflecting, it never really crossed my mind or struck me as very important at first. Because of my identity as a native woman, I’m from a community that views women as life-givers, women as protectors of water; women are the beings that we all look to for support. I don’t necessarily feel marginalized in that space, in my community. So having a Women’s History Month, to me, was like, “Oh, okay that’s cool,” on a personal level since my most salient identity is native. I’m native first, and a woman second, so my native lens dominates my perspective around being a woman, which is that women are highly respected. I also realize that patriarchy is real – I can’t deny that – but largely where I feel marginalized or experienced injustice was less around being a woman but more about being being native.

Professionally, particularly in the STEM field, women are severely marginalized. Working in this college has been really eye opening, and in my professional role it has been really great to be able to support women – especially, women of color and indigenous women – in a place where they might not always feel supported. Female role models are very important for them, not only in the STEM field but in general.

My undergraduate studies were not focused on the STEM field, actually. I just ended up coming here, to the U, and working for the College of Biological Sciences first before moving over to the College of Science and Engineering (CSE). Really, I just fell into STEM, but working with STEM students, I have gained a greater respect for this field. It’s so different from my field as a professional in higher ed; women dominate education, not most STEM fields.

It has been eye-opening to see my students go through an experience that’s very different from mine. By connecting their experiences with the experiences of women of color, I can help guide them through their studies and college experience.

Although there are many women in educational professions, there is still some work to be done to include more women of color and indigenous women. I will say that in general, women of color and indigenous women are always serving their communities as educators and as mentors, but that might not necessarily be in their actual job title. There have been many situations in my career where I’ve been the only woman of color or indigenous woman in the office. It is a tough experience, because although the number of women of color and indigenous women in this field is growing, the culture hasn’t changed. It’s hard to be surrounded by white people, white women and not assimilate into that culture. I often think, “How do you remain who you are in that space?”

CSE does a great job of providing summer programs for youth, especially for young girls. A colleague of mine runs one for girls of color and indigenous girls, which is great because it keeps them interested in STEM and makes a career in STEM seem more achievable. When you think about an engineer or scientist, you think about a white man. And maybe, secondarily, you think about a white woman.

If young children of color and indigenous children see a more diverse workforce in engineering and science, it is affirming to think that they can work in that field too. Summer bridge programs are a great opportunity for this.

Getting here [the STEM field], as a young female, is tough. Staying here is even tougher. You’re often the only woman in a study group. Most of your professors are white men that have their own ideas about how you should perform. It’s a hard cultural shift for you to go through. We do have people who will leave the major and a find a new major that’s more comfortable for them. For some students, they’d rather be happy and not go through these challenges. That is not to say we don’t have a lot of students of color, women of color, who excel because we do. I am very honest with my students. I let them know it’s gonna be hard for them because of their identities, but I will be there to support them through it. I personally think it’s important to not sugar-coat the experience for them, or making them think that there will be a ton of people who look like them or identify like them in their classes because that’s not realistic.

When I was thinking about Women’s History Month, I realized that it had never been on my radar before. I think it’s because of my cultural background, and the fact that I come from a line of strong women. It’s really innate in all of us native women; my cousins, my relatives, we all come from strong women. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think this month is important, it’s great to have it. However, I do have to ask myself, “What is the intent?” and “Who is it really for?” Most of the months that we set aside are for marginalized or minority communities, but Women’s History Month didn’t feel like something I could subscribe to because it feels more whitewashed. Those were my initial thoughts on the month.

I did notice the difference in treatment of women from what I am used to in college. Dating someone who wasn’t native was especially eye-opening.

It’s a different experience, having to explain the difference and walk others through the rationale of [women as life-givers] is really what made it click for me, that treatment of women isn’t the same outside of my community. That’s not to say it’s good or bad; it’s just different.

As a teenager, and even younger, there were many times when I was playing sports when we would travel to a non-native community for a game, and the tension was clear. The would refer to us as “you people” and take part in discriminatory actions. Going to those other schools was the first time I realized this is real, that the discrimination towards my community is real. You know, you grow up on a reservation you see your people, and everyone around you looks like you, so the prejudice isn’t there. Interacting with the coaches and people in the stands and refs just being unfair was a bit of a shock.

Foundationally, these institutions were built for white – and often wealthy – men. Institutions, including their cultural values and missions, are a continuing site of colonization for native students. So when you’re at a place like the U, how do you navigate it when it wasn’t made for you? I looked at the boarding school era, when they were using education as a mode of assimilation for native students back in the 19th and 20th centuries. We continue to do that here at universities, because the practices and policies that dictate how we “do school” aren’t culturally inclusive. How certain things are rewarded, and what are considered achievements require a degree of assimilation. If students want to be successful, they need to act and perform in that way. My argument, particularly for native students, is that we continue to colonize education unknowingly. We have all of these services, which are great, but they don’t make up for the ways we define achievement and success. I’m hoping to shed light on this. You have to be here to be successful, but that doesn’t always align with your home community.