Insights and Impact

Pursuing Purpose: Championing Opportunity for Native Students 


Illustra­tion by
Jaylene Arnold

Naomi Miguel

Naomi Miguel, WINS ’07, ’08, SPA/MPAP ’17, lost student council elections during her senior year of high school and college by a single vote. It was a sign that her future was in policy—and a reminder that every vote counts. “Public service is personal to me,” says Miguel, member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. “My grandpa was a former tribal chairman and an air force veteran, my grandma was a teacher, and my mom had a career in tribal government. When I see a problem, I’ve always tried to figure out how to help.” She’s doing that as the new executive director of the White House Initiative on Advancing Education, Equity, and Economic Opportunity for Native Americans. “Education has had a big impact on my life, and I want to help create an inclusive environment that helps other Native students succeed.” 
1986: Born in Tucson, Arizona, and taken home from the hospital to the village of Chui-Chu on the Tohono O’odham reservation in the south-central part of the state.
1987: Blessed by Pope John Paul II during his address to Catholic Native Americans in Arizona, during which he acknowledged for the church’s role in erasing their cultural identity. “Religion and spirituality are important to me; this experience has grounded me.”
1996: Picked up the alto saxophone—which she still plays today—in the fourth grade.
2000: Elected seventh grade representative, running on a platform to reduce the price of soda in the campus machine. 
2002: Developed an interest in political science after 9/11 and the militarization of Arizona’s border with Mexico. “Government was the first class that didn’t feel like school to me.”
2005: Graduated from Casa Grande Union High School, where she “did almost everything,” including student council, mock trial, teen court, marching band, and cheerleading. “I would play my saxophone during the halftime show in my cheer uniform.”  
Enrolled at Mount Saint Mary’s University (MSMU) in Los Angeles. “I needed to learn about the world beyond the reservation and Arizona, so I could come back and help.” 
2006: Began learning the O’odham language from tribal elders in downtown Los Angeles. “We had dinner, and they gave me the leftovers because they knew I was a college student. That’s how I found my community.” 
2007: Interned with the Federal Communications Commission’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs as part of AU’s Washington Internships for Native Students (WINS) summer program. Attended a meeting of tribal liaisons at the White House—the first of many visits throughout her career.
2008: Studied abroad in South Africa and Namibia, staying with a family in a remote village near Khorixas, Namibia. “Other students were shocked that they didn’t have plumbing, but it felt normal to me, having grown up on the reservation. It was eye-opening, however, to see the same inequities in different countries.” 
Participated in WINS for a second summer, interning with the National Science Foundation’s Office of the Inspector General. “I worked on investigations and learned how to ask the right questions and how to handle information with discretion.”  
2009: Graduated from MSMU with a bachelor’s in political science. 
2010: Accepted a corporate job as a long-term disability specialist after working on a losing congressional campaign in Arizona—but couldn’t shake the political bug.
2011: Joined the Tribal Law and Policy Institute, where she focused on issues related to intimate partner violence, tribal justice systems, and sex trafficking. 
2015: Accepted to AU’s Master’s in Public Administration and Policy program. She is the first in her family to apply and attend a master’s program. 
2016: Awarded a Native American Congressional Internship with the Udall Foundation, a federal agency that provides Native students with the opportunity to gain practical experience with the legislative process.
2017: Graduated with the second cohort of AU’s online MPAP geared toward working professionals. “I had a good job and had built trust with our non-profit executives. I didn’t want to choose between my professional and personal development. Thankfully, with AU’s program, I didn’t have to.” 
Accepted a position in Representative Raúl Grijalva’s (D-AZ) office just three days after collecting her diploma. “It was [an entry-level] staff assistant job, but it allowed me to learn the mechanics of Congress.” 
Cofounded the Congressional Native Staff Association to promote diversity among Congressional staff.
2018: Cheered as Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland became the first two Native American women elected to the US House of Representatives.  
Promoted to legislative assistant and professional staff on the House Committee on Natural Resources.
2020: Braced herself as COVID-19 began spreading across the US. “I hoped it would not impact Indian Country, but unfortunately, it did. Early on, during calls with the Administration, I asked about medical supplies like ventilators and hospital beds. When I heard the low numbers, I knew that wasn’t enough to cover my family, let alone all of Indian Country.” 
Assisted with the CARES Act securing $8 billion in financial assistance to tribal governments, Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to aid tribes with COVID-19 response. 
2021: Watched on TV from her family’s home in Arizona as insurrectionists overran the US Capitol on January 6, as Grijalva was speaking on the House floor. “I told my mom exactly where they were in the building and where they would go next. She asked, ‘How do you know?’ I said, ‘Mom, I work there.’ That day changed me—it reminded me how fragile our democracy is.” 
Promoted to staff director of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States. Helped secure $20 billion for 2.6 million citizens of 570 tribes as part of the American Rescue Plan: “the largest single infusion of federal funding into Indian Country,” per the US Treasury. 
Named to the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development’s 40 under 40 list. 
2022: Cried as Representative Mary Peltola (D-AK) became the first Alaska Native woman elected to Congress. “When I started in Congress, there was no one that looked like us.” 
2023: Tapped to lead the White House Initiative on Advancing Education, Equity, and Economic Opportunity for Native Americans, housed in the Department of Education. “Our country is so divided; equity and knowledge are key to strengthening our democracy.”