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VCU alum Christina Davis, a program advisor and instructor in University College, said she chose to work at VCU because β€œit allowed me to be a forever student – in and out of the classroom.” (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Meet-a-Ram: Christina Davis embraces past, present and future tenses of her Native American identity

Interdisciplinary studies advisor and instructor charted a unique path at VCU and is helping new students do the same.

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It took Christina Davis awhile – as in, 25 years – to complete her undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2020, but she has made the most of her ongoing time on campus.

In June 2022, Davis joined the Interdisciplinary Studies Program in University College as a program advisor and instructor after working in VCU’s Division of Student Affairs for six years. In May of this year, she completed her master’s in educational leadership in the School of Education, and she hopes to earn a doctorate in its culture, curriculum and change program.

Including marriage and motherhood, it’s been a unique journey for Davis since she established VCU ties in 1995. She identifies as “one of those complicated American Indians from Virginia” – a Cherokee descendant whose family came to the area from Yellow Hills, North Carolina, and settled in Hanover County. Her family married into the Mattaponi/Pamunkey tribes, further intertwining her European and African American ancestry.

Her master’s project focused on the reach of student programming in VCU’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs – a passion informed by her Native American identity and her commitment to inclusion. As part of the Humanities Research Center’s On Native Ground initiative, Davis served on the land acknowledgment task force, and through OMSA, she helped organize this past May’s inaugural Native, Tribal and Indigenous Graduation Ceremony.

VCU News caught up with Davis to talk about identity, interdisciplinary studies and more.

You have, as you call it, “a rainbow of a family” – how does that influence your perspective in life and work?

I was raised with my grandfather, instilling in us our Native culture, which was transferred down with my mom and then down to us and, for me, onto my children. We participated in powwows. For my everyday identity, I hold true to my grandfather’s wish and legacy of walking as a Native American woman. It’s no doubt that I’m mixed with Black. My grandma had Italian roots. That’s just what I grew up with. I denounce none of them.

I have a rainbow of a family, so I’m very much focused on equality and inclusion. So with each student who comes in, I ask “How are you? Who are you? What do you want me to know about you? What are your plans for the future? And how can I help you get there?”

What do you like about interdisciplinary studies, from both your student days and now as an advisor?

I was able to create my own plan for my degree focusing on international social justice, with minors in anthropology and religious studies, and the program allowed me to be unique. Just about all our students have some component to their declaration, where we help them create the major component of their degree, that is pretty much unique to the student. Each student I work with is a constant learning moment for me.

I had been back and forth, trying to obtain an undergrad degree for over 20 years, that I accumulated so many credits and was all over the place. But that happens with life. You change your interests. I chose to attend VCU because it allowed me to study a variety of disciplines and to be close to my family. I chose to work here because it allowed me to be a forever student – in and out of the classroom.

The holiday season would seem an ideal time to more thoughtfully consider Native American identity. What’s your message?

This is always a time for reflection on getting to know the history of the land where you are residing or working. The fact that in your workplace, in your classroom, you could be sitting with someone who is Native American can help people get out of the mindset of what a Native American physically looks like. As with all other races, there’s a variety.

Be respectful, using terms of present and future tense. A lot of times when people talk about Native Americans and Virginia Indians, it’s like they’re not even here anymore. They’re just not walking around in regalia every day – they have on regular clothes like everybody else. I have found a few instances here where Native Americans were spoken about only in the historical tense. As an older, nontraditional student, I don’t mind raising my hand and speaking in present tense.

What does it mean to decolonize a syllabus or curriculum?

It’s teaching the history of Indigenous people here from an Indigenous perspective, not always a Western perspective. It means asking for input from the tribes. So when you’re asking for the stories of Indigenous people, let them tell their own stories and not have it be retold by Europeans. And if Indigenous students are in a history or anthropology class, give them the space to speak their story.

What was your message to tribal leaders, state officials and university educators at September’s Virginia Tribal Education Consortium conference?

I spoke about how Native American literature, sciences, arts and other disciplines can be incorporated in a curriculum. My talk, entitled “Revitalizing Virginia Indian Culture through Curriculum Change,” acknowledged that it’s expensive to start new programs like Native American minors or certificates, but content can easily be incorporated within current syllabi.

For example, the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who visited VCU last year, can be incorporated in environmental sciences and biology and botany. The Angeline Boulley books “Firekeeper’s Daughter” and “Warrior Girl Unearthed” are great young adult books. And works by Virginia natives, like “Contemporary Virginia Indians Telling Our Stories,” will help in high school curricula.

I also highlighted some of the universities in Virginia that have Native American minors and programs, which I think is a great opportunity to recruit Native students. I would love for VCU to be on this list. That is one of my hopes and goals.

Meet-a-Ram is an occasional VCU News series about the students, faculty, staff and alumni who make Virginia Commonwealth University such a dynamic place to live, work and study.