It’s a beautiful sunny Saturday on campus at The Evergreen State College, and the Masters in Public Administration students are hard at work inside the library. Two of those students are Chryss James and Jennifer Cordova-James, her daughter. And both are in the same Tribal Governance MPA cohort.

The Tribal Governance program is the only one of its kind in the country. It focuses learning on issues of intergovernmental relations, tribal policy and economic development. It was the unique focus of the program that made Chryss want to apply.

Jen and Chryss at Evergreen library
Jen and Chryss with a sculpture in the Evergreen campus library by Apache artist Allan Houser. Photo credit: Stephani Hemness

“Having attended traditional colleges, there was always that missing piece that would teach you that skill set you needed to work within your own culture and with your own community,” she shares. According to Chryss, the Native instructors, combined with a diverse cohort, make it a prime opportunity for learning.

As a retired social worker for the state, Chryss already has a lot of professional experience, but it was her daughter Jen who pulled her into the program. “When I heard about the Tribal Governance program, it was a grad program and it scared me, it’s a huge step,” says Jen. “I started filling out my application, and I knew it was my mom’s dream to always get her masters as well.” That’s when she started pushing and empowering her mom to apply too, she knew her mom had more potential waiting to be realized.

Now, two years later they’re just one quarter away from graduating. They describe the program as rigorous and challenging, but also empowering. “It has been transformative,” Jen shares, “This whole entire educational journey has been an honor and a privilege to meet our cohorts from different backgrounds, different tribes, different cultures, even meeting allies that want to work with indigenous communities.”

Evergreen Tribal Governance MPA Co-hort
The current Masters in Public Administration in Tribal Governance cohort outside a Capitol Campus building. Photo credit: Jen Cordova

Though Chryss and Jen are the only mother-daughter duo in the program, they say the 28 student cohort is very diverse and multi-generational. “Those with more experience offer more insight, while those who are younger offer a fresh perspective,” Chryss says. “It’s very complementary. There’s a lot of camaraderie and support.”

Still, with a diverse cohort comes a diverse set of view-points. “We’re learning to understand our own biases,” begins Chryss. “You very quickly realize the difference between opinion and bias. And sometimes you find out that your bias is based on faulty information. That’s what Jen means when she talks about the transformative nature of graduate school.” Chryss says that the program has taught them to use critical thinking, and not to just accept things superficially, but to really look for valid data and research.

“They teach us depth and they challenge our current mindset,” Jen adds. She says that sharing discussions with a diverse cohort with differing viewpoints is where the learning happens, even when the differing view is between the two of them. But that doesn’t stop them from working together.

Evergreen Tribal Governance MPA Co-hort
The Tribal Governance MPA students meet two weekends a month on campus at The Evergreen State College. Photo credit: Jen Cordova

Chryss and Jen are preparing to start their capstone project, which they will be working on together, along with a third classmate. Their plan is to bring their newfound learning back to their community, and to the Northwest Indian College (NWIC), where Jen graduated from in 2015. They want to find ways to empower current students and help them achieve their educational goals.

The Tribal Governance program encourages students to find ways to give back and contribute to their communities. Having had the opportunity to hear from many guest speakers, including some MPA alumni, it makes sense that Jen and Chryss would want to do the same with the students at NWIC.

Looking back, though graduate school has been empowering, it definitely was not without challenges. In their first year, Jen and Chryss had to adjust to the high workload and hours of studying. It has required a lot of endurance and patience from them, and Chryss says it can be tricky to balance a job, family and school.

Chryss James and daughter
Chryss James with her daughter Jennifer Cordova-James, pictured here in her traditional cedar bark hat. Photo credit: Jen Cordova

The program is designed for working professionals and meets for two 20-hour sessions a month, each of which take place Friday through Sunday. Chryss and Jen make the drive down from Everett and stay in a hotel during each session. Their first year, they were both roommates in the campus dorms.

When not hitting the books, Chryss cares for her adopted great-grand niece and nephew, and volunteers at a non-profit that she co-founded, Heartbeat Family Support Services. Without the Tribal Governance program, Chryss says she doesn’t think she would have gone on to complete her masters, because it has inspired her to achieve. She is considering using her knowledge to pursue lobbying or business ventures in her community.

“It’s been an honor and privilege to go to school with my mom,” says Jen. “It’s been challenging, but the most humbling and beautiful transformation to witness in each other.”

Jen enjoys going to cultural events in her community, volunteering and going to the gym. Ever since she was young, Jen says she has wanted to change the world and make it a better place. She wants to apply her degree to be an advocate for indigenous education, and possibly go into law or lobbying.

Evergreen Tribal Governance MPA Co-hort
First Nations and ally students. Photo credit: Jen Cordova

“As a parent, it’s been exciting to see her growth as an emerging future leader, to see the skill set that she already posses and continues to hone,” Chryss says. “I couldn’t be prouder.”

Without their mutual support, they would not be where they are, Jen says. “And if it wasn’t for the faculty and staff, as well as our cohort family, we wouldn’t be here,” Jen adds. “The support is phenomenal.”

With their faculty’s support, love, advice, expertise and knowledge, Jen and Chryss are able to become leaders and advocates in tribal governance and sovereignty. As a family and as individuals, they have already done so much for their community. And as soon-to-be Evergreen MPA graduates, they’re sure to achieve even more.

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