Joely Proudfit, Ph.D., doesn't often find herself tongue-tied.

After all, she's forged an illustrious career as one of the country's leading champions of American Indian studies.

She's also spent decades teaching at three campuses in the California State University system, including eight years at CSU San Marcos, where she developed and now directs the American Indian Studies program. And she founded and directs the campus's California Indian Culture & Sovereignty Center.

It was these accomplishments that led President Obama to appoint Dr. Proudfit, a descendant of the Pechanga band of Luiseño Indians, to his National Advisory Council on Indian Education in September 2016.

But as Proudfit shook the President's hand at the 8th Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, "I could barely speak," she says. "I was a bumbling crybaby."

 

'From Poverty to Presidential Appointee'

Behind that emotion was both Proudfit's respect for the President and the improbability of her journey, as she puts it, "from poverty to Presidential appointee."

Growing up in Southern California had been rough. Both her parents were heroin addicts. With only a 10th-grade education, her mother struggled to support Proudfit and her two siblings, going from one minimum wage factory job to the next.

Between jobs, the family lived in homeless shelters, in a motel, even in a friend's borrowed car. In the best of times, the four crowded into a studio apartment; sometimes the electricity would get turned off, and more than once Proudfit came home to find an eviction notice taped to the door.

Hunger was a constant. "There was never enough to eat," she remembers. "Food was something we always hoped and prayed for. My mom would sell the TV when things got really desperate."

Proudfit did what she could—sweeping the floors at a local liquor store and using her earnings to buy "cheap stuff, like bread, milk, bologna," she says. "If I never have another slice of bologna, it will be too soon." 

Her mother tried to commit suicide several times and Proudfit sometimes had suicidal thoughts herself.

"You feel really sorry for yourself and think maybe things would be better if I wasn't here," she says.

"I never acted on that, but I did feel that kind of despair."

 

A Transformation Begins

In 1987, Proudfit was a high school senior living with an aunt while her mother was incarcerated for a drug offense when her best friend asked her to come along to his meeting with a counselor from CSU Long Beach.

"It meant I could skip class, so I said, sure," she recalls.

That single departure from Proudfit's usual studiousness ended up changing her life. When the counselor asked Proudfit what her plans were after graduation, she said she'd be joining the military because her aunt had said she could live with her only until she was 18.

"The counselor looked at me kind of stunned," Proudfit says. She went on to tell the 17-year-old that there were dorms at the college and encouraged her to apply.

"I wish I knew that counselor's name," Proudfit says, "so I could thank her and let her know what I've become."

Proudfit had been the first in her family to graduate high school; that fall, with scholarships, a Federal Pell Grant and funds from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Proudfit became a freshman at CSU Long Beach.

The school gave her access to a new world of ideas, fellowship and opportunity; she soon became active in the campus's American Indian Student Council—"a way for me to stay connected to my tribal roots," she says—and discovered the writings of Vine Deloria, Jr., a Native American philosopher, theologian and activist, who would later become an important mentor.

Perhaps most important, Proudfit says that at the CSU she began "to find my voice and to move from a feeling of victimization to one of empowerment."

Another essential mentor in her transformation was William Leiter, Ph.D., now professor emeritus at CSU Long Beach, who "opened up my eyes to the possibilities of becoming a professor and encouraged me to apply for graduate school."

It was Dr. Leiter who told Proudfit about the Chancellor's Doctoral Incentive Program (CDIP).

The largest program of its kind in the U.S., this CSU initiative offers doctoral students financial assistance in the form of loans of up to $30,000. If students return to CSU to teach once they've earned their Ph.D., the loans are forgiven in full over five years.

Thanks to the CSU's forgivable loans, after Proudfit graduated from Long Beach she was able to go on to earn a doctorate in political science at Northern Arizona University.

 

Coming Home

As promised, Proudfit returned to the CSU to become a faculty member herself, moving from tenured positions at San Francisco State to CSU San Bernardino and then to San Marcos, where she has been since 2008.

"San Marcos is built on the land of my people, the Luiseño/Payomkowishum Indians," Proudfit explains. "This was the campus I had always wanted to teach at, this is home for me."

Proudfit's education has provided her the confidence she needed: "Once I felt I could speak up on behalf of American Indians through educating others and bringing attention to critical issues, we could begin to right some wrongs," she says. "It's been hard to keep me quiet."

In fact, since Proudfit has been at San Marcos, American Indian and Alaska Native students have increased from 0.3 percent of the student population to 4 percent—the highest in California.

One unique way in which Proudfit's impact is felt is through a deal she makes with her native CSUSM students: After they graduate—on a day that includes a traditional honoring ceremony—each is responsible for bringing in two more native students to the university.

"Some students come here who have never lived off the reservation" before starting college, she says.

"They're the shyest kids, but being here is transformative. They blossom, and within months, they're speaking on behalf of the university and our programs at different conferences. My greatest pleasure is seeing these kids become successful students and then move on to graduate school or to careers like medical doctors, lawyers, environmental advocates and teachers that really benefit their tribal communities."

 

A Vision Quest Fulfilled

When Proudfit first became part of CSU as a student back in 1987, "I was trying to survive," she says. "I couldn't even imagine what would be in my future."

Since then, her time as both a CSU student and a leading faculty member have taught her to dream and her "big visions," she says, have become reality.

"I had a vision of creating a California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center, of creating a 21st-century American Indian Studies department, of San Marcos becoming a university of choice for American Indian students. And, with the help of the community, campus administrators, students and my mentors, we have accomplished all those things."

Her next dream? "I want to see some San Marcos graduates earn their Ph.D.s and then come back and teach beside me as tenure-track faculty."