Job shadowing my father, and my path to tenure

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).Picture 8

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).

6 thoughts on “Job shadowing my father, and my path to tenure

  1. Thank you for your inspiring story. I am a new academic, I started my first year at Arizona State University as an assistant professor in American Indian Studies. Its great to see other Natives, especially one from my home state, reach success in higher education.

    1. Thanks, Tennille! I’m really happy to hear that you are now at ASU. You are surrounded by a wonderful group of colleagues in AIS – many of them I know personally. If I can be of any help – any assistance – as you move forward on the tenure track, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

  2. I’ve often wondered what percentage of academics had at least one parent who had been one, or who at least understood something about the life and the need to begin early in an academic career to plan for it, make the right decisions to attain it, etc. I also think that many people who really are academically inclined don’t realize they would be suited to teaching at the college or university level until a later date, at which time they may consider themselves–and actually be–practically too committed to other things, professionally, financially and personally, to aspire to life as a professional academic. Even without parental involvement, there are obviously some people who figure all this out at a very early age and make it happen, but I suspect they are few. Do you have a sense of how this has worked out for colleagues whose stories you are familiar with? I would really be interested in what you’d have to say.

    1. Thanks, leifhendrik, for taking the time to comment. All good questions. I think for some people, the thought of teaching college students can be quite intimidating, which may cause them to pursue other occupations. I was very fortunate to have my dad as an example – both in and outside of the classroom. I only know of a small number of Native faculty whose stories are similar to mine. I certainly hope that at least one of my kids becomes a teacher – perhaps even a university professor!

  3. Pingback: Job Shadowing My Father, and My Path to Tenure « MomsRising Blog

  4. Pingback: Spending time with my dad on Second Mesa | Beyond the Mesas

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