(Courtesy photo - Tom Story/Arizona Board of Regents)
F onda Walters' higher education journey started when she was just 5, a Navajo girl growing up in Tuba City, according to an Arizona State University news release.
Her father frequently asked her at dinner, "Where are you going to college? And, what are you going to study?"
Answers to the questions he posed changed through the years, but Walters always knew college was possible and probable because her parents never doubted her potential.
Now, she is a proud member of a family of six siblings, all of whom are first-generation college-degree earners, including a brother who has earned his doctorate.
Walters reached the pinnacle of educational attainment at ASU by earning her doctoral degree in education through the Leadership for Changing Times accelerated program for working professionals.
Besides her hard work, she credits her family's support and the Navajo community that gave her strength through prayer ceremonies to excel in her studies.
"I went to my family for guidance and help," she said. "We held traditional ceremonies to get me through while we were doing this. This is my family's degree, and those who came to my ceremonies who I didn't know well. They stayed up all night for me."
Walters had been thinking about earning her doctoral degree for years before she found the program at ASU that was just starting for working professionals.
Accepted in June before the start of her August 2009 semester, she was one of the first to be accepted.
"I thought, either I go out and do it, or I stop talking about it," she said. "However, I didn't have money for school or a job in the Valley at the time."
After landing an ASU job in downtown Phoenix, Walters searched for funds to finance her doctorate and ended up securing the support she needed at the last minute.
"It was an extremely accelerated program with a very supportive environment and an excellent structure," she said. "I was up for it. I had to take that leap of faith."
That's not to say working on her doctorate didn't require sacrifice, especially when it came to spending less time with her children who ranged in age from 8 to 17 when she started her degree.
Eventually, Walters landed a job at ASU as senior research analyst for the American Indian Policy Institute.
"That was a godsend," she said. "The American Indian Policy Institute has been extremely supportive of me."
Her dissertation topic was "Promoting Entrepreneurship in a Tribal Context: Evaluation of the First Innovations Course Sequence."
Because of her work with the groundbreaking American Indian Policy Institute's First Innovations Initiative, Walters is poised to be a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship education for American Indian students.
"I would love to put this curriculum into tribal colleges across the country," she said.
Walters also hopes that other Native American students will realize that they can complete college, despite challenges experienced along the way.
"It can be done, one class at a time," she said. "It comes with sacrifice and you may not have money. You have to be prepared to accept the long, rough and sometimes smooth road. You have to set your goal and go."