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Camela Brown: guiding the next generation of Indigenous STEM leaders

Camela Brown: guiding the next generation of Indigenous STEM leaders

When Camela Brown (Biology, ’20) was 15 years old, her father was in a car wreck that rendered him paralyzed from the neck down. Camela’s mother left her work as an educational assistant for the Bloomfield, New Mexico, school district to care for him. While her parents traveled to and from Albuquerque for rehab, Camela stayed home to raise her 13- and 10-year-old sisters. For Camela, the experience mirrored a traditional Navajo belief.

“When you’re Native, family always comes first,” Camela said.

Camela Brown in graduation cap and gown with Navajo turquoise jewelryAfter graduating high school, Brown moved to California to work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and study engineering at a local college. She dreamed of pursuing a career in civil engineering. A year later, her father fell sick from a brain aneurysm.

“I didn’t think twice. I dropped everything and moved back home,” Camela said.

Camela followed her mother’s path and accepted a job as an educational assistant with Bloomfield’s school district. She became a certified coach for the state of New Mexico and coached volleyball, basketball, and track. While her mother continued as the primary care provider for her ailing father, Camela recalled her father maintaining a lightness about his condition.

“He made it a personal goal to outlive Christopher Reeve, who was also quadriplegic,” Camela laughed. “Seven years later, Christopher died. Dad made it to nine years.”

Her father speculated the only reason he made it longer was the love of his family. He told Camela that made all the difference.

After her father passed away, Camela felt even more compelled to support her mother and sisters, who she encouraged to attend college. Her middle sister Kayla went “up the hill” to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Kayla played basketball for the Skyhawks and graduated in 2008 with a degree in Accounting. Their youngest sister earned a master’s in social work from New Mexico Highlands University.

All the while, Camela worked. In 2016, her sisters insisted she continue her own educational journey. 

“I didn’t think to go back [to school], but my sisters said that I had to finish,” Camela said. “They said, ‘you put so much time into what we’re doing, it’s time to focus on you.’”

In May 2017, Camela drove to Durango on a whim, just “to see what this is all about.” She walked into the Admission office at FLC and shared her situation with an admission counselor. The counselor rang Richard Fulton, the dean of the School of Education at that time. He happened to be on campus and had a moment to chat.

Camela was 36 years old; she told Fulton she wanted to graduate by her 40th birthday. She shared that she loved science. She was also concerned about finances. Fulton pointed out that if she chose a biology major, she could graduate in three years. He added that teaching careers would always be needed. In three years, he said, she could get her undergraduate degree, teaching license, and TESOL (Teaching English to Other Languages) endorsement. For Camela, the opportunity was too enticing to resist.

“In one hour, I had a whole life plan,” Camela smiled. “I never would’ve gotten that if I’d gone anywhere but Fort Lewis; I would’ve still had unanswered questions. One fateful afternoon, the stars lined up.”

Camela and her mother on graduation day, standing in front of the Fort Lewis College clocktowerCamela drove home that same day and retired from her 19-years-long coaching and academic positions with the Bloomfield school district. She returned to Durango in August to start school and used her retirement money to pay for housing.

“I had the [Native American] Tuition Waiver, but there are still living and lab fees,” Camela said. “The Financial Aid department worked like dogs to help me get funding. I was trying to avoid a loan but ended up taking out a small one.”

With her financial woes eased, Camela focused on her classes, where she was usually the oldest student. While the science courses were engaging, she was most surprised by the passion of professors in the School of Education.

“It’s academically rigorous, but I was crushing all my courses. It was fun, and I just let myself enjoy it,” Camela said. “After a while, the teachers sold me on a career in teaching. I just knew this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Why else would I have already spent 19 years in the school system?”

Camela received the National Science Foundation Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship her sophomore year. She presented on cultural immersion and diversity in education in rural areas at the 2019 American Association for the Advancement of Science national summit in Washington, D.C.

“I went to that summit representing Southwest Colorado, the Navajo Nation, and specifically my hometown,” Camela said. “I wanted to show the rest of the world that there are places in America that still don’t have water, electricity, and internet. Part of the reason we can’t excel is that we’re trying to meet those basic needs; we don’t have the amenities other kids have.”

Camela reflected that Indigenous Peoples value different resources, like respect for elders, traditional ceremony practices, and household roles for women and men. There is, however, widespread skepticism of science and technology, something Camela hopes to change.

“Science on the reservation isn’t something that gets pushed because there’s always a clash between modernism and the traditional world,” Camela said. “I’m going to be the bright spot that says, ‘it’s okay to be traditional and modern.’ I can still do ceremony and also have my basic needs met.”

Camela graduated from FLC in 2020 according to the plan she and Fulton created three years earlier. She returned to Bloomfield to teach secondary science.

“What do these kids need to know? How to not be afraid,” Camela said. “I want to fuse everything together and get these kids to realize it’s okay to be good at something, to be strong, to excel.”

In 2021, Camela was recognized in the Noyce Scholars & Fellows: Inspiring the Next Generation of STEM Learners video developed by AAAS. She was also invited to sit on a panel of former scholars at the 2022 Noyce Summit to discuss her experiences working with Native American students focused on STEM careers. In June 2022, she was appointed as a member of the ARISE (Advancing Research and Innovation in the STEM Education of Preservice Teachers in High Need Districts) advisory board. Throughout this three-year appointment, Camela will provide support and guidance at the national level for high-need school districts. She’s currently exploring a master’s degree in education and said, “all signs point to the Fort.”

“I can teach Native kids that it’s okay to acknowledge a traditional mindset and also pursue a career in the sciences,” Camela said. “And that it’s okay to leave. The elderly in our culture think that you won’t come back. But there are more and more of us who do come back and want to incite change and turn the tides.”

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