The following article appeared as part of a series titled "Commencement Profiles: Take a closer look at seven of this year's graduates" in the May 15, 2001 edition of On Campus, a publication of The University of Texas at Austin.
By Mary Lenz
When Terrelene Gene is awarded her Master of Public Affairs degree, she will be the first member of her family to receive an advanced degree and the first person from the Navajo Nation to graduate from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Her goal is to return to Arizona and use her degree to work in tribal government.
"My dream job would consist of being in some high-ranking position within the Navajo Nation," Gene explained. "However, my concentration is in management in general and public affairs. But with a public affairs degree, you can pretty much do anything."
Gene, who was born in Pinon, Ariz., a small community on the Navajo Reservation, is one of only a handful of Native American students ever to enroll at the LBJ School. "I came to the LBJ School because they had a really good program. The values and the mission of the school are also very important to me -- and also because of the good weather!" Gene said.
Gene grew up speaking Navajo. She and her two brothers were raised by their mother, Marie Gene, an artist and weaver of traditional Navajo rugs. After Gene graduated from junior high in Pinon, the family moved to Phoenix so that she could enroll at Central High School.
"My mom is pretty much the reason why I have come this far. She motivated me, encouraged me and made sure that I had at least my undergraduate degree under my belt," Gene said. "Mom moved us to Phoenix because she saw how bad the schools were on the reservation, and she wanted us to have more opportunities than the reservation could offer."
One of her brothers currently is a stockbroker for Charles Schwab, and the other works for a Native American non-profit center involved with services for the elderly in Phoenix. In 1998, Gene received a bachelor of science degree in political science from Arizona State University in Tempe, with a Certificate in the American Indian Justice Studies Program, the equivalent of a minor involving the study of the federal government Indian policy.
At the LBJ School, Gene has served on the Graduate Public Affairs Council, as co-chair of the Commencement Committee and on the Public Affairs Alliance for Communities of Color. She also is a part of the Public Policy and International Affairs Fellowship Program, a fellowship for minorities interested in pursuing degrees in public affairs.
Gene credits Dr. Howard Prince, a visiting professor of public affairs at the Center for Ethical Leadership at the LBJ School, with teaching her that social change has to begin with changing oneself first. "It starts out with one person -- with yourself -- and once you do that, you start affecting other people, organizations, governments or society," she said.
She said Prince has helped her do more than she thought she could. "He expects a lot of me and he doesn't have a problem telling me that," Gene said. "I do the best I can to reach his expectation. I hope I have."
Gene said she once thought her ideal job would be to serve as assistant secretary in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). However, after working on her thesis, she changed her goal to one of involvement in tribal government.
"My thesis topic is about improving tribal governance," Gene explained. "I identify the problems that Indian nations are facing today, which includes a lot of historical problems. I recommend alternative ways that tribes and the BIA can try to work through together."
This past summer, Gene worked as a legislative adviser in the Legislative Branch of the Navajo Nation, headquartered in Window Rock, Ariz. She wrote legislative analyses, policy memorandums and analyses of Navajo Nation Council resolutions, as well as speeches for tribal government officials.
Gene has worked as a summer research intern at the Appalachian Regional Commission in Washington, D.C., where she helped write reports on programs funded by the commission that were published and distributed to members of the U.S. Congress during the annual budget process. She also has served as a case manager at the Native American Community Health Center, Inc., in Phoenix, as a representative and advocate for clients who were predominantly Navajo speaking, as well as for members of other tribes. She participated in the Washington Internship for Native Students Program at American University in 1996.
In her spare time, Gene loves learning how to cook traditional Navajo foods such as mutton and frybread. She also "loves to attend Native American festivities, and spending time with my friends and family. And I love to hike the canyons that are near my family's home in Arizona."