Dr. Sherry Allison, Navajo, president of Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was named the 2014 American Indian College Fund Tribal College Honoree of the Year by the American Indian College Fund.
The prestigious award, funded by the Adolph Coors Foundation, was created to recognize a distinguished individual who has made a positive and lasting impact on the tribal college movement. Dr. Allison will receive a $1,000 honorarium and attend a special ceremony celebrating her contributions on March 16 in Billings, Montana at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium Spring Student Conference in front of her peers, colleagues, Native scholars, representatives from the Adolph Coors Foundation, and College Fund staff.
Dr. Allison’s commitment and enthusiasm for Native education is a contagious part of her personal mission. When told this, she said, “I had a meeting today with members of SIPI’s leadership team and I told them, ‘If we keep making improvements, in five years, you watch, people will be fighting to come to college here and people will be fighting to work at SIPI.’ ”
For the past five years Dr. Allison has served as president of SIPI. She served as Interim President from January to December 6, 2010, at which time she was appointed to the position of president by Mr. Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs. SIPI is one of two federally operated colleges operated by the U.S. Department of Interior—Bureau of Indian Education.
There, Dr. Allison has lead the college; addressed its accreditation issues; and renewed excitement for its mission with faculty, staff, students, and board of regents, ensuring that everyone understand the team’s goals. She describes her leadership style as being a servant leader. Valuing the contribution of people is important to Dr. Allison. “I listen to our staff and students and try my best to acknowledge their concerns and recommendations and make certain that we all understand that we are part of a world that we must make better for our students. Student success is why we must succeed at what we do… not one person is more important than the other. It is up to the organizational leader—and, that would be me—to walk the philosophy,” she said.
Dr. Allison said she identifies strongly with the challenges that tribal college students face because “my commitment and passion for education stems from my own personal experience. I was raised on the Navajo reservation, on a farm near Shiprock, New Mexico; my family was fairly poor. There were eight children and we lived in a two-room house with no modern conveniences such as running water, heating system, and more. My father had a fifth-grade education and my mother finished the third grade. My mom was a cook and my father was a heavy equipment operator. Realizing the challenges they faced with limited education, they both impressed on all of their children the need for a higher education. They knew that education was a way out of poverty. The majority of my brothers and sisters earned a higher education, and it changed our lives by opening doors and improving our lives. Education is so powerful. It is such a change agent. This is where my passion comes from. When I see our students I see myself; they are me.”
Dr. Allison said during her five years at SIPI she has worked hard to ensure the college meets accreditation standards and deals with the underfunding issues that plague all tribal colleges. “I work hard to ensure that our students continue to receive the quality of education they deserve, that we meet the mission of our college and the mandates of our accreditation agency.” She added that tribal colleges are not just institutions of higher learning, but places where Native students receive an abundance of support and experience the acceptance and healing that helps them to move forward in their lives.
“Although it’s a challenge, as SIPI’s president, I embrace and do not discourage this role of tribal colleges,” Dr. Allison said, “because many of us come from that very same kind of background.”
She said she has mentored several students over the years, but one young woman came to SIPI a month after completing a rehabilitation program for alcohol abuse. “She did not trust the system at all. When she came to SIPI she had lost everything because of alcoholism. She lost her family, had no home, and had nothing to fall back on. She was very broken. I told her like I tell all of our new students they are always welcome to my office—just to talk, introduce themselves, or to let me know if they need anything. She later told me because of her alcoholism she doubted my sincerity.”
This young woman took Dr. Allison at her word and visited her and continued throughout her time as a student at SIPI to make regular visits to Dr. Allison seeking advice, guidance, love, support, and encouragement. Dr. Allison said, “While at SIPI, she was a model student. She started a volunteer program to help incarcerated youth, and she became one of the most effective Student Senate presidents. She went on to graduate, got a car, an apartment, and a full-time job. She is still alcohol and drug-free—and most importantly, she got her family back. After she graduated she went on to testify publicly that SIPI saved her life.”
This is the power that tribal colleges have to change and even save lives. Dr. Allison adds, “It is not just me that deserves this award. I don’t feel one person deserves recognition. We are a team [at SIPI]. Collectively, we made progress and we all did this together.”
Prior to serving as president of SIPI, Dr. Allison worked with the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) in various capacities, including programs concerning residential treatment and education services to students in juvenile detention centers; professional development; and special education. She also served on “details” as the Education Line Officer (Superintendent of Education) for both the Northern Navajo and Ft. Defiance Agencies located on the Navajo Nation; and seven months as the Acting Chief for the BIE—Division of Performance and Accountability.
Dr. Allison has served on numerous national and state boards and task force committees. She was elected to serve as the 1999-2000 President of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA); and was appointed by the New Mexico State Superintendent of Education to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Advisory Panel, where she also served as a past Chairperson. Dr. Allison has more than 30 years of professional experience in American Indian education that includes the following tenures: Assistant Professor (LAT) and Senior Research Scientist at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Health Sciences Center/Center for Development and Disability; Assistant Professor (Adjunct) with the Native American Studies Program at UNM; and Research Associate with the University of Arizona, School of Medicine, Native American Research and Training Center.
In addition to receiving the American Indian College Fund Tribal College Honoree of the Year award, Dr. Allison has received numerous other honors, including being named as the Patricia Roberts Harris Academic Fellow from the U.S. Department of Education, which allowed her to complete her doctorate degree.
Dr. Allison makes her home in Albuquerque with her husband Alley David, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna. They are a blended family and are the parents of three adult sons, the guardians of a 15-year-old niece, and have five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.