Aya Smith ’22 wears many hats—she’s a University of Redlands student, a softball player, a future teacher. But her identity as a Native American woman resonates with her the most.
After initially being interested in attending the U of R because of its academic excellence, Smith was awarded the San Manuel Excellence in Leadership Scholarship—a scholarship that encourages Native high school students from Southern California and beyond to pursue undergraduate degrees. In addition to making college accessible, Smith says that the scholarship’s requirement that recipients be active in Native communities on campus led to a sense of belonging.
“I wouldn’t have been able to come to Redlands without the scholarship,” she says. “Similar to my position on the softball team, the San Manuel Excellence in Leadership Scholarship has given me a place here. People check in about my grades and wellbeing. I have a support system.”
This support system has created a solid foundation for Smith to grow and explore her interests. The experiences she has enjoyed at Redlands are multifaceted: Being a student-athlete has given her a close-knit team environment and 20 new friends; participating in Native Student Programs has encouraged her to form deep relationships with other Native students who share similar backgrounds; and small class sizes have allowed her to feel comfortable approaching her professors, making meaningful connections in the process.
Professor Alesha Knox, who taught Smith’s first-year seminar, was one of the first people Smith connected with on campus. “She came to the course with such a level of understanding and was so well-versed in topics and issues that affect marginalized communities,” says Smith. “That’s one of the great things about attending a liberal arts college—you can zero in on certain subjects and tackle them head-on.”
A history major who is also working toward her single-subject teaching credential in the U of R School of Education, Smith plans to become a high school teacher. She looks forward to teaching students who want to examine parts of history with more honesty than some curriculums have allowed for in the past.
"I always thought it was really important for more Indigenous people, and, more importantly, Indigenous women, to teach history—especially in places like California, where we have a pretty gruesome past with the mission system and our treatment of Indigenous people,” she says.
Until she has a classroom of her own, Smith is committed to having honest and understanding conversations with her classmates about the history of the state and the country as a whole. She views these interactions as part of the legacy she’ll leave as an educator and member of the Native American community.
“Every single thing I do, every second of the day, I experience as a Native woman,” she says. “When people talk about this country, or even about Redlands, I know that some of my ancestors were here at the beginning. I take pride in who I am and know that I represent my community and family in everything I do—they’re the reason I go to college, and I want to pay it forward and help future generations to come.”