First Circle of Learning Scholars Earn Their Graduate Degrees and Impact Tribal Communities


The first Circle of Learning scholars completed our school’s MLIS program in December 2013, and they are already making a huge impact on tribal communities from Alaska to California.

Preserving endangered languages, addressing health literacy challenges, digitizing tribal records, and managing tribal collections―just a glimpse of where the first Circle of Learning scholars to earn their graduate degrees are heading with their new knowledge and leadership skills.

The Circle of Learning (COL) program was launched in 2010, with a goal to increase the number of American Indian and Alaska Native librarians and archivists who are prepared to serve tribal communities. It’s a noteworthy goal if you consider that less than 0.3% of our nation’s librarians are American Indians and Alaska Natives.

In December 2013, the first five COL scholars completed the Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program at the School of Library and Information Science at San José State University (SJSU). Another nine COL scholars are on track to earn their MLIS degrees in May 2014. 

Although the 19 Circle of Learning scholars are just now completing their graduate degrees, they are already making a huge impact on their communities, from Alaska to New Mexico.

Susan Gehr, a COL scholar who completed the MLIS program in December 2013, is enrolled with the Karuk Tribe and is a former Karuk language teacher. She helps lead efforts to preserve the Karuk tribe’s endangered language and supports other initiatives to preserve and record California’s indigenous languages.

While earning her MLIS, Gehr helped maintain a Karuk language online dictionary, and her work regarding the Karuk language was featured in an article in the North Coast Journal. She is also collaborating with the Center for Indian Community Development at Humboldt State University in California on projects involving their tribal language collections. In 2012, Gehr was invited to serve as an instructor at the Institute on Collaborative Language Research, where she shared her knowledge regarding software applications used to manage language data.

Gehr valued the opportunity to learn from other Circle of Learning scholars, and looks forward to continuing to be part of a group that shares her goals.

Like Gehr, COL scholar and recent MLIS graduate Gena Peone has a passion to preserve tribal languages, as well as other tribal material. Peone currently works as the assistant collections manager for her tribe, the Spokane Tribe of Indians, helping preserve archival and cultural collections, including audio recordings of tribal language.

In 2013, Peone received support to conduct research regarding how to use software originally developed to identify bird calls to identify and catalog tribal language audio files. Through her research, she hopes to gain new knowledge regarding trends in audio preservation, which will enhance future work to preserve tribal language audio recordings. Funding for Peone’s research came when she was selected to participate in the Institute on High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS) at the University of Texas. Peone describes her research interests in a post on the HiPSTAS website.

COL scholar Lisa Dirks also completed the MLIS program in December 2013. Her dedication to serve tribal communities in Alaska includes a focus on wellness research and health literacy projects. She works as a researcher with the Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage, Alaska. The foundation is an Alaska Native-owned, nonprofit health care organization serving Native people living in Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna Valley, and 60 rural villages. With her research background, Dirks was able to assist with efforts to evaluate COL program outcomes, including the impact of COL scholars on indigenous communities.

During her last semester in the MLIS program, Dirks developed a grant proposal aimed at helping her tribal community, the Unangan (Aleut) community, preserve their archival collections. Dirks worked with the Aleut Heritage Library and Archive (AHLA) to develop the proposal, which seeks funding to help AHLA catalog, digitize, and preserve their collection of cultural material and provide online access to the digitized collection. Dirks developed her grant proposal while taking LIBR 282: Grant Writing, an MLIS program elective.

According to Dirks, developing the grant proposal and conducting the needs assessment to support the proposal were “an opportunity for me to give back to my Unangan community and use knowledge gained while earning my MLIS.”

Reflecting on her time in the COL program, Dirks shared that not only did the program remove financial obstacles to earning her MLIS, but it also provided the social and professional support she welcomed in a fully online graduate program. The ability to interact virtually and in person (at COL events and professional conferences) with other COL scholars, who shared her interest in supporting indigenous information issues, “made the program even more rewarding,” said Dirks.

An MLIS elective also played a key role in the learning journey for COL scholar and recent graduate Indri Pasaribu. She currently works managing tribal records, a job she found as a result of an internship she completed while earning her MLIS, and through connections she made while attending a professional conference.

As an MLIS student, Pasaribu sought out a range of opportunities to expand her knowledge and global professional connections. One highlight was her experience in a new Virtually Abroad course she completed in fall 2013. As part of her coursework, she conducted research for the S’Klallam Tribal Library in Washington State regarding oral history projects.

Pasaribu believes that indigenous people need the type of education offered by the COL program, so they can “become the rightful custodians of our cultures.”

COL scholars have been sharing their knowledge beyond their own tribal communities. For example, eleven COL scholars presented at the International Conference of the Association for Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums (ATALM) in June 2013, on topics ranging from health literacy to cultural preservation.

“Since the Circle of Learning program awarded its first scholarships in spring 2011, we have been amazed at the accomplishments of all the COL scholars,” said COL co-director Jane Fisher. “They have gained the confidence to seek promotions or new positions, they are highly visible in the professional community, and they are developing new approaches to meeting the needs of tribal communities. I am excited to see all they will accomplish after graduation, as individuals, and as leaders and mentors.”

The Circle of Learning program supports American Indian and Alaska Native individuals who want to earn their MLIS degrees and work as librarians or archivists, and who are committed to addressing the needs of Native individuals and tribal communities. The COL program is a partnership between the SJSU information school and the American Indian Library Association, and is funded by a multi-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

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