Earlier this summer the University of Illinois granted me promotion to associate professor with indefinite tenure in American Indian Studies & history. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about my path to tenure, and the road I took to get where I am now.
Thirty years ago I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut, a veterinarian, or a professional musician. I did not imagine that I would become a university professor or a “scholar.” But when I was a senior in high school, my perspective and desire changed.
At this time, I had a rare opportunity to “job shadow” my father* who was (and still is) a professor of education at Northern Arizona University (NAU).
I clearly remember sitting in the back of the classroom as he taught his students from the front.
I had never seen my father in this type of setting, and I was amazed at his ability to communicate to his students, present his topic with much enthusiasm, and provide his students with a safe place to learn, disagree with each other, and to think analytically.
But there was more. My father also exemplified for me how powerful a skilled Native American instructor could be, both as someone who could offer unique insights into course material, and as someone who could be a model for others.
When he lectured on the integration of western science and Navajo and Hopi cultures, he did so with authority and confidence. His teaching was grounded in who he was as an indigenous person. His students understood this, and they benefited from the unique and personal perspective he brought to his lecture.
Although the class period lasted for only an hour, my experience observing my father had a major influence on my life.
In this brief moment, my father demonstrated to me the characteristics of a successful teacher. And he showed me how to excel as an American Indian faculty in a classroom of Native and non-Native students.
My observation job shadowing my father in the College of Education at NAU set in motion my eventual career as an academic.
It launched me on a path toward college and graduate school, and a tenure track faculty position at the University of Illinois.
As an assistant professor, I worked hard to fulfill my obligations and responsibilities to the academy and my Hopi community. But I did not do it alone.
I had the support of my wife and children, my parents and other extended family members, colleagues and friends at Illinois and beyond, and many people back home.
Now on sabbatical, and on the other side of tenure, I find myself thinking a lot about the past seven years at Illinois.
But I also keep recalling the time when I job shadowed my father, and the significance this experience had, and continues to have, on my career and life.
*My father, Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert, is professor of Bilingual and Multicultural Education at Northern Arizona University (NAU). He grew up on the Hopi and Navajo Indian reservations in Arizona, and he received his Ed.D. (Doctor of Education) at the University of New Mexico. He has published a number of articles and book chapters, and once served as President of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA).