A Graduation Milestone and a Special Gift Honor a Father’s Wisdom

Serra Hoagland is university's first Native American woman to receive Ph.D. in forestry

NAU President Cheng congratulates Serra Hoagland at the commencement ceremony on May 13. Photo by Grad Images.
NAU President Cheng congratulates Serra Hoagland at the commencement ceremony on May 13. Photo by Grad Images.

Throughout her life, Serra Hoagland’s father has told her, “When a door opens, don’t be afraid to walk through.”

Back in 2011, when Serra had just received her Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Management from the University of California, Santa Barbara, she traveled to Minnesota to attend the Intertribal Timber Council’s (ITC) annual symposium. One evening during the symposium, Serra, who is Laguna Pueblo, was unexpectedly asked to give a talk about engaging students in the ITC. She quickly prepared the talk, during which she mentioned an interest in continuing her education. After the talk, she was approached by Danny Lee, the director of the U.S. Forest Service Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, who presented her with an opportunity.

A door opened, so she walked through.

For the next few years, Serra worked part-time as a biological scientist with the Eastern Threat Center while completing course work and her Ph.D. project: an assessment of the Mexican spotted owl (a threatened species) and forest treatments on tribal and adjacent national forest lands. Lee and several Center scientists have supported Serra in this ongoing research to address issues of forest health and wildland fire risk—findings that are important for the Forest Service as well as tribal communities. In May, she became the first Native American female to receive a Ph.D. in forestry from Northern Arizona University (NAU).

Records indicate that Serra is only the third Native female to receive a Ph.D. in forestry in U.S. history. This is a profound honor, but why do so few Native people, especially women, hold Ph.D. degrees in forestry and other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields? It’s a complex issue that Serra is exploring.

“Until recently, Native students had few opportunities for funding and guidance to pursue higher education. Now, opportunities for support abound, but many students may not be connecting with these opportunities yet,” she says. “Native students have concerns about moving away from their families and community, missing traditional ceremonies and practices, and finding a mentor who understands their unique challenges.” A forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Forestry, co-edited by Serra, is slated to discuss the experiences of Native Americans in higher education.

Serra says the path wasn’t always clear to her. A lifelong love of the outdoors and wildlife carried her into college, but it wasn’t until she began to excel in ecology courses that she realized she had the skills and passion to continue her education beyond a bachelor’s degree. She admits that she struggled with her confidence at times, but a dedicated mentor convinced her to push on. “I had to,” says Serra. “I felt a huge weight and responsibility to my tribe and Indian country in general to take advantage of available tools and support systems, stay on track, and succeed.”

Now Serra hopes to open doors for others. Currently, she serves as a mentor to two Native students enrolled in the Native American Research Assistantship Program. To these and other students, she advises, “Take advantage of those available opportunities. Keep in mind that there are always people who want to help you. Find those champions. And don’t be afraid to take a risk, especially if you feel it’s the right thing to do for yourself, your family, or your community.”

At Serra’s graduation ceremony, NAU President Rita Hartung Cheng mentioned Serra and her achievements during her commencement speech. “Building a strong future lies in the hands of critical thinkers. It will require creativity, innovation, and an element of risk. It will take eagerness and understanding. It will take the ability to lead and the knowledge of when to follow. These skills are a critical component of NAU’s forestry program, and Serra Hoagland is a perfect example,” Cheng said. “Serra is a strong advocate not only for our environment, but also for the role that women and Native Americans can play in protecting it.”

Serra had the president’s words engraved on a plaque, which she gave to her father on Father’s Day.

For more information, email Serra Hoagland at sjhoagland@fs.fed.us.

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