Before COVID-19 thrust academia into the virtual realm, Richelle Hill often burned the midnight oil on campus.
“When our class ended at 8 o’clock, she and another student usually stayed behind to study together,” recalls Julia M. White G’07, assistant professor of teaching and leadership in Syracuse University’s School of Education . “I was impressed with Richelle’s self-discipline.” Never mind that Hill, a 30-year-old mother of four, usually had family responsibilities waiting for her at home.
Higher education is not just a privilege, it’s a right—one long denied to her people, Hill says. A Cayuga member of Six Nations Reserve in southern Ontario, she is painfully aware of how Native Americans are languishing in schools, on and off reservations.
Hill also knows that, despite being at a top-tier research institution, she may have to work twice as hard to get noticed by prospective employers. “I think many of us doubt ourselves because of what happened to our ancestors,” she explains. “Intergenerational trauma plays a huge part in why many Native Americans don’t pursue college degrees. We’re scared of not succeeding.”
Richelle is an example to other parents that it’s never too late to pursue an education and that with the proper support in place, their dream can come true.—Amie Redmond, Senior Assistant Dean, School of Education
Thanks to the University’s Haudenosaunee Promise Scholarship Program (supporting qualified first-year and transfer American Indian students), Hill is a junior in the School of Education’s selected studies program, which boasts a whopping 98% graduation rate. She hopes to parlay her training—including more than 270 experiential hours—into a career in special education.
“I’ve always worked with kids and have wanted to expand my knowledge,” says Hill, who transferred to the University from Mohawk College in Ontario, where she studied child development. “Some of my professors at Syracuse University have made a big impact on me, including Beth Myers and Janine Nieroda G’19 in the School of Education and Rae Ann Meriwether in the College of Arts and Sciences .
”The feeling is mutual, says Nieroda, assistant teaching professor of reading and language arts. She recalls how Hill, in College Learning Strategies (CLS 105), sat front and center in every class, diligently taking notes and asking insightful questions. One time, during a reflective journaling exercise, Hill opened up about the rigors of attending school full time while raising a family, including a stepson who does not live with her.
“Richelle talked about holding a sick child in her arms while studying for exams,” Nieroda says. “She’s goal-oriented and fiercely strong-willed, all the while devoted to her children and their well-being.”
Hill’s quiet determination and sense of social responsibility were evident earlier this year in White’s class, where she came up with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women project.
Combing through reams of data, Hill found that Indigenous women and girls in Canada are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than other Canadian women and girls. The reasons are many, including the fact that Indigenous women are often stereotyped as prostitutes or drug addicts.
“Richelle showed how law enforcement woefully mishandles these cases,” White says. “This issue is rarely addressed in Canada and much less in the United States, where it is largely ignored. I was proud of her depth of research and willingness to tackle such a difficult topic.”
Ionah Scully, a Ph.D. student in cultural foundations in education, also was impressed. A Cree-Métis member of the Michel First Nation in central Alberta, she has been Hill’s unofficial mentor for the past year. Scully marvels at how Hill draws critical connections between law and inequality. “She has the ability to communicate on issues that impact our community. When Richelle is supported in this work, she shines.”
Any discussion about Hill prompts a flurry of praise. Professors and fellow students describe her as “thoughtful and caring” and “determined and tenacious.”
Amie Redmond G’95, G’00, senior assistant dean of academic and student services in the School of Education, considers Hill a role model for other Indigenous students and post-traditional learners, the latter of whom usually are older and have to balance life, work and school. “Richelle is an example to other parents that it’s never too late to pursue an education and that with the proper support in place, their dream can come true.”
Says Myers, the Lawrence B. Taishoff Assistant Professor of Inclusive Education: “Richelle focuses intently on issues of disability in education and is thoughtful about student needs. She also is persistent in her values and strengths, working hard to make sure that all voices are heard.”
Born and raised on Six Nations (Canada’s largest First Nations reserve), Hill moved to Baldwinsville, New York, with her family so she could attend Syracuse University. She credits her teachers, family and friends—and the Native Student Program on Euclid Avenue—for fostering a sense of community during uneasy times. “They’re all very important to me,” she adds.
That Native Americans account for less than 1% of the University’s full-time student body—and barely 2% of the U.S. population—sometimes makes Hill feel invisible or misunderstood. Therefore, she takes every opportunity to share stories about her people and their histories.
“Richelle is committed to justice-based equity,” Scully says. “When she witnesses microaggressions in class, she points them out and ensures that the classroom is a safe space for the most marginalized among us.”
Redmond echoes these sentiments, citing the growing demand for Native teachers, especially in tribal areas that are geographically isolated.
“We need more Native American students to enter the field of education. I am proud of Richelle’s commitment to follow through with it,” says Redmond, adding that Hill recently made the dean’s list for the first time. “The University is giving her a strong foundation for the future.”
Indeed, Hill brings considerable life roles and experiences, not to mention knowledge mastery, to her work as a student. It is for these reasons and others that Nieroda thinks Hill will make an excellent teacher.
“Richelle has lived through many ups and downs,” Nieroda adds. “She has found the will, fortitude and heart to continue. Her response to setbacks shows that she’s boundlessly resilient.”