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Harvard grad working to boost Native education

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By Julie Muhlstein, Herald Columnist
  • Malia Maya Villegas will earn a doctorate in education from Harvard University.

    Malia Maya Villegas will earn a doctorate in education from Harvard University.

Let’s say you stopped by Bobby’s Hawaiian Style Restaurant on Everett’s Hewitt Avenue. You’d expect exotic menu choices, and maybe Hawaiian music. If you wander in May 31, you’ll see something else entirely — a Harvard University graduation party.
Malia Maya Villegas isn’t just graduating from Harvard Thursday. She’s earning a doctoral degree in education. If she wants, she’ll be able to put “Dr.” in front of her name.
Her mother Suzy Villegas, a 1974 graduate of Everett High School, calls herself “the proud mommy.”
Malia Villegas wasn’t raised here, but her grandmother, Mary Maya Ketchum, lives in Everett. And 30-year-old Malia has many relatives and friends in the area. A 1997 graduate of Shoreline Christian School, Malia did her undergraduate work at Stanford University, where she majored in political science and comparative studies on race and ethnicity.
Her heritage is as richly diverse as the travel experiences she gleaned growing up as the daughter of U.S. Navy parents. Suzy Villegas, a retired senior chief petty officer, is an Alaska Native from the island of Kodiak. She met Pio Villegas, Malia’s father, while serving in the Navy on Guam. He is from Hawaii, with Philippine and Portuguese ancestry.
Malia’s parents now live in Pierce County. Suzy Villegas works for the native village of Afognak. The federally recognized corporation, comprised of descendants of the original Alutiiq people, does construction at Fort Lewis. “I’m the contract manager,” said Suzy Villegas, whose name at Everett High was Judy Lane.
After their retirement from the Navy, the couple lived in Everett for a year in 1995 before moving to King County during Malia’s high school years. Malia Villegas has one brother, Jamie, a financial analyst in San Francisco.
Suzy Villegas said the Everett restaurant is a family favorite, and a festive spot for the Memorial Day party. Many friends and loved ones aren’t able to travel to Cambridge, Mass., but she’ll be at Harvard to see her daughter in three graduation events.
On Wednesday, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education will conduct a graduate degree hooding ceremony, followed by the larger graduation Thursday. On Friday, there’s a graduation event for Native people. There, Malia will wear a traditional headpiece, a beaded skullcap made in her native colors, red, black and white.
She’ll likely feel a little jet-lagged. Malia Villegas spoke with me Friday from Brisbane, Australia. She is there, at Queensland University of Technology, on a three-year post-doctoral fellowship. The aim is to help more native people gain access to higher education.
Her doctoral dissertation was titled “500 Maori Ph.Ds in Five Years: Insights From a Successful Indigenous Higher Education Initiative.” The Maori people of New Zealand had been helped with educational opportunities as part of their government’s reparations, she said.
“My goal, I really love to do work with indigenous students in their communities,” Malia Villegas said Friday. “A lot of folks want me to take the academic track and be a professor. My mom wants me to come home, but this just fell out of the sky.”
Here’s a question for Malia Villegas: How does a Navy kid, whose parents moved every three years or so — from Hawaii to Florida to Guam and back here — manage to achieve so much academically?
“My parents, for sure, always said to us, ‘Our job is to go to work every day, and your job is to go to school.’ I had a real curiosity, every place we moved, to get to know people,” she said. “It’s so funny, I never thought I’d keep moving every three years after I left the family.”
Suzy Villegas said her daughter’s ultimate goal is to be the U.S. Secretary of Education.
That wouldn’t surprise me a bit. If you can walk down Hewitt Avenue into a Harvard doctoral grad party, why not?

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,
Story tags » Education & SchoolsEverettAmerican Indian

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