Joe: My struggle to succeed
On May 11, after facing tremendous odds and inheriting a doomed situation, and then after much struggle, agony, sacrifice and even hurt, I received a master's degree in English.
So if I could run a 15,000-copy, regional, startup magazine on zero budget and graduate with distinction from a university, then anyone can do it.
My mother, Rose Ann Joe, was born sometime around Mother's Day in 1933, 1934 or 1935; no one really knows. She grew up at a different time, in a different world, on the Navajo reservation. Like the Navajos of her time, she was raised in the traditional Navajo way: herding sheep, gathering herbal medicine plants, planting corn, waking up at dawn to pray to the gods and taking part in age-old ceremonies.
Both she and my dad, Robert Sr., raised all nine of us in the same way.
Back then, few could write. Unless an official recorded one's birth, it only mattered that you were born. Our parents grew up when most Navajos hid their children from the BIA, the federal agency which serves as trustee. The hidden never received a Western education, or learned to speak English. So, it's ironic then that almost all nine of her children have degrees: undergraduate, graduate and law. Even though she grew up in another time, my mother embraced the change that encircled her. She knew that getting a college degree meant a way out of the poverty we grew up under. We had no electricity or running water.
Had she survived an illness three years ago, she would have been happy to see me, the last of the six boys, receive my degree from a university internationally recognized for its invention of corpus linguistics, a branch of study in linguistics.
Growing up in a small reservation border town in northeastern Arizona, I was a C minus student. Mom used to tell people that I barely graduated from Winslow (Ariz.) High School and the family had to hold a ceremony to ensure I'd graduate. But somehow, probably because I read a lot, I made it to the University of Arizona. At UA, I struggled but founded RED INK, the first national Native American college student publication.
After my mother passed on, I moved forward with plans to pursue more education. She would have wanted that. But since my admittance was conditional at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., I quit a well-paying public relations job to make As and Bs.
Being a full-time student isn't a big deal; people do it all the time. But four weeks into the fall 2006 semester, an unfortunate situation caused by a disagreement resulted in my having to edit and publish a 15,000-copy publication - each month - with no startup money. It was like pouring acid into water to run a startup magazine on advertising revenues alone, while a full-time conditionally-admitted student. There was no choice after The Associated Press published a story that ran in thousands of national newspapers on the debut of REZ BIZ magazine after my friend quit. It was either fold the magazine or continue alone.
So, while most students have to stress over assignments or papers due, I also had a magazine to run, bills to pay, and I agonized over how to pay for the next issue. Entrepreneurs know what it's like when the established Goliaths mock you and do what they can to quash you, especially when they find out you're vulnerable. It's hurtful when others hope that you fail; you're all alone, and people you've trusted turn on you for self-gain - month after month. And do you know what it's like when you're preparing for an exam, or finalizing a paper due in one hour, and you get a business call that is so tormenting that you want to put your fist through the nearest wall? My mother used to say in Navajo, after I'd been beat up: ''Tough it out. Harden yourself. They're just making you stronger.''
If running a business under trying circumstances was an experience, then school was another beast. One day while sitting in my graduate research class after studying all night, tired and hungry, I almost got up and walked out the door. ''What am I doing here?'' I thought. ''Did I even belong?'' For the second time, a class discussion whizzed over my head because I had no idea what was being discussed, even after reading all the material beforehand. My classmates were citing writers and books I'd never heard of in my life. It was graduate school, after all. You come either knowing the subject or you don't; a disadvantage.
My childhood was spent herding sheep during the weekends and summers, watching ceremonies being performed under the stars, hauling in buckets of water for drinking and reading under a kerosene lantern in the evening while my white counterparts were getting a head start. In their suburban homes, they were probably reading popular teen fiction and discovering writers like Kurt Vonnegut. Could I catch up?
At NAU, even though the school is jokingly called Native American University because of the sheer number of Native students, there are few minority students in my program. I'm the only Native in many years. Some say it has to do with the degree's marketability. I say English is harder because it's an all-encompassing subject.
How I made it despite all the horrendous barriers put before me the past two years, and yet finishing with a 3.48 GPA and being selected Outstanding Native American Graduate Student, I don't know. How I didn't drown myself in self-pity or quit everything during the darkest, lowest moments, I don't know.
Maybe it was the support and teachings of my parents, family, spiritual leaders and my adviser that gave me strength, wisdom and hope. Maybe I gave it my all for my mother, a gift on Mother's Day like no other. Maybe I had already been through the absolute worst when she passed away in my hands. Maybe it's for all these reasons.
The only thing I do know for sure is this: If I hadn't gone through my horrific experience, I never would have known what I was capable of accomplishing and I would not be the stronger person today. You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it.
My parents weren't there on May 11, but they were there in spirit.
George Joe, Navajo, is the editor and publisher of REZ BIZ magazine, an American Indian business magazine, and the recipient of the 2006 - '07 Outstanding Native American Graduate Student award from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz.