Sometimes, you just feel a calling.
At just 14 years old, Shawn DeNell Young started working for the Choctaw Nation during summer and Christmas breaks, and 15 years ago, she went full time.
"Just after high school, I went to a Bible college, where I got an associate's in church music," Young said about her earliest aspirations. "At that point, I thought that I was going to travel the world, and sing and play music, but the Lord had other plans, and so I came back. I fell in love with the people, and the families, and just the heritage."
Young decided to earn her Bachelor of Science in Liberal and Applied Studies from Southeastern Oklahoma State University (SOSU) in 2012, graduating in the fall of 2016 and starting on her master's coursework just one semester later. Now, after completing her Master of Science in Native American Leadership online from SOSU in May of 2019, Young, a member of the Choctaw tribe, wants to give back to the tribe that has given her so much.
"I have been around the Choctaw Nation for such a long time, and I've utilized their employee reimbursement program, so they reimburse you for what you pay for college classes," she said. "The Choctaw Nation gives so much to its people, and the only thing that I really want to do is [have] the opportunity to give back. I'm so grateful I get that opportunity where I am."
The first in her family to graduate from college, Young believes that education is essential to protecting tribal sovereignty and that her work as an educator for the Choctaw Nation is about seeing that protection into the future.
Giving and Receiving the Gift of Education
While Young may be the first college graduate in her family, she believes that her passion for teaching — which she intends to pass on to students and her daughter Rachel (4) — stems from her mother.
"My mom is a natural teacher," she said. "While she never taught [formally], she very much has that Native storytelling teacher focus. [My parents] were both extremely proud of the fact that their daughter not only was going back to school, but was making an example for her child, and for the family. I kind of set the bar for the rest of the family."
Young, who works in human resources for Choctaw Nation's Learning and Development Department, chose SOSU's MS in Native American Leadership program to develop her expertise in working with tribal members.
"This particular program really helped me to understand the intricate details of the tribe," she said. "I feel like I've got a good balance now, because I've got experience of working with our guests, internally and externally, but also understanding the academic details of where we came from, where we're trying to go, our objectives and our precious matters like natural resources, education and sovereignty."
Education and tribal sovereignty also happened to be Young's favorite courses in the MS in Native American Leadership program — both of which bore a special connection to her family's past, present and future.
"[NAL 5213: Native Education Policy] was definitely one of the amazing ones," Young said. "My great-grandmother went to some of the Indian boarding schools that were talked about … the fact that I'm in education was impactful for me because I could see that Native people learn differently than other groups of people who are taught in many secular schools now."
In her role as an instructor for the Choctaw Nation's Leadership Institute, Young teaches several programs for tribal and nontribal associates who want to build their leadership skills and better serve the tribe, and she is hoping to move up with her new degree.
Her goal is to progress from the associate level to a leadership role and teach Mahli Chito, a program that offers accredited classes through SOSU from the Choctaw Nation Leadership Institute's instructors.
"I went through that program, I know the impact that it has, I know the opportunities that it gives, and I would like to share my experience with others who will also be going through it," she said.
In receiving all of this education and working as an educator herself, Young believes she is helping to protect the tribal sovereignty of the Choctaw Nation, and she is happy to already be doing the work she feels called to do.
Fulfilling a Higher Purpose
The importance of tribal sovereignty was not something she necessarily had to learn in class, but Young is grateful for insights she gained in the course NAL 5233: Tribal Sovereignty that helped her not only understand what is truly at stake in the heart of the matter but also see her work as protecting that sovereignty.
"I've been working for the tribe for most of my life," she said. "Even before then, my mom worked for the tribe, and so I knew that sovereignty was important, but I didn't understand how much, until I took that course.
"I realized that our sovereignty is very fragile, and it's based on compacts, and treaties that were written a long time ago. It's important for us to understand where those treaties came from and what we need to do to continue to make ourselves a sovereign nation."
Learning about the past provides an understanding of the present and guidance for the future that Young hopes to pass along to her students and daughter alike.
"As we are able to teach the associates of the Choctaw Nation, tribal and nontribal, they're able to better support the Choctaw Nation in whatever role they have," Young said. "When we can teach them how to better further their skills, they can not only become direct representations of the Choctaw Nation, but they're taking their skills home, and they're creating better families, and more effective families, and richer culture within their families. So, as long as we are promoting heritage, and promoting the core values of the Choctaw Nation, then we're ultimately ensuring that sovereignty stays."
Creating better families through education is not just something Young preaches, she also practices it at home, educating her daughter in both the history of her tribe and the culture through beading, making jewelry, and collecting artifacts.
"Education's a big, big touch point for me, and so I expect the same for her," Young said. "I hope she sees through my example that, while it's not easy, you do have to sacrifice your time sometimes. But it's worth it in the end."
After going at a breakneck pace to earn her bachelor's and master's degrees, Young is content to spend her Sundays in her new home in Durant, Oklahoma, with her daughter and her husband, Adam, enjoying all that she has already accomplished.
Young's eventual goal may be a leadership role, but she's in a great place with her career aspirations today. "To be honest," she said, "I'm doing them."
Learn more about the SOSU online MS in Native American Leadership program.
Have a question or concern about this article? Please contact us.