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Oct 10, 2012 10:56 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Shinnecock Woman First Native American Female To Graduate From Oxford University

Oct 10, 2012 11:35 AM

For Kelsey Leonard, England’s Oxford University was the obvious choice when considering master’s degree programs for water science and environmental policy. The Harvard grad and member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation didn’t know, however, that she would be the first Native American woman to receive a degree from the university—a distinction she said is surreal, but which she feels honored to have.

“It’s a great starting point for indigenous peoples to attend the top universities in the world and to continue to push the envelope of what we see for ourselves and our communities, and where we hope our academic endeavors lead us to,” she said this week.

The daughter of Michele and Ronald Leonard, she earned her Master of Science degree in water science, policy and management in September and has already started working as an independent consultant on Marcellus shale and water resource management in response to drilling by the natural gas industry, dividing her time between her two homes, in western Pennsylvania and the Shinnecock Indian Reservation. Eventually, Ms. Leonard said she’d love to work as a policy advisor for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in order to help indigenous tribes with environmental policy, especially the Shinnecock tribe.

“It’s a good position to be in—to have a plan, but to see it change and not be opposed to that,” she said. “I think my heart has always been in public policy and impacting the lives of local communities and tribal nations.”

Ms. Leonard started learning about and enjoying her heritage at a very early age because her mother, Michele, worked as the executive director of the Urban Indian Center in Philadelphia. From ages 5 to 13, along with brother Paul and sister Courtney, Ms. Leonard was involved with the program and did a lot of volunteer work, including representing the organization at powwows, and throughout her high school years at the Knox School in St. James, she sat on the Shinnecock Youth Council, acted as student council president and graduated in 2006 as valedictorian.

According to her mother, Ms. Leonard still faced some adversity when she decided to apply to college in her senior year. Universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton were said to be “pie in the sky” choices. Yet she was accepted to all the Ivy League schools she applied to.

“She’s developed a thick skin and learned not to let insensitivity hamper her goals,” her mother said.

During her years at Harvard, she traveled abroad to Samoa to work with indigenous tribes on business development, and the community of Roseau, Dominica to work with indigenous outreach programs, as well as serving on the All Ivy Native Council and the Harvard University Native American Program, where she was an advocate for cross-communication among various cultures and communities.

“Our greatest learning experience came from breaking bread with people from different backgrounds and communities,” she said. “It was beautiful and inspiriting to see it happen.”

In May 2010, she graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology with a secondary field in ethnic studies, and immediately started at Oxford.

“We weren’t worried about London or Oxford,” her mother said. “At that point, it was no longer an issue for fingernails to be bitten.”

Growing up, Ms. Leonard lived in various places with her family since her father, Ronald, served with the U.S. Air Force. She was born in Hawaii and grew up in Southampton and Pennsylvania. Her stints in Samoa and Dominica, while nerve-racking for her mother, prepared her for her two years spent at Oxford.

“It was very much a culture shock,” she said. “The first couple of days you think you use the same language, but it takes a few tries to understand what the Brits are saying and for the Brits to understand you.”

The master’s program she entered was “intense” and “much more accelerated than in American universities,” she said. “It definitely feels like a weight is lifted to have that completed.”

Ms. Leonard said that even though she is the first Native American woman to graduate with a degree from Oxford, the school has had an enduring relationship with indigenous people, predominantly through anthropological endeavors. She said Oxford has the largest collection of indigenous artifacts in the world, part of the reason she feels her achievement was only a matter of time.

“I’ve always treated every opportunity to be a sponge,” she said. “If you come to a new place with an open mind and an open heart, you’ll be embraced by wonderful friendships and people, and really get a great experience.”

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Congrats Kelsey, Shinnecock is proud of your accomplishment.
By adczeta (69), southampton on Oct 18, 12 12:05 AM