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At Sac State, Nia Gregory finds a home and learns her power as a Native American woman

Nia Gregory, who is of Cherokee, Yuchi, and Mexican descent, says she felt that no teacher or college professor shared or even understood her cultural background and experiences.

Then she came to Sacramento State and walked into Professor Annette Reed’s Native American Women course.

Nia Gregory transferred to Sac State in the fall of 2016 and earned her bachelor's degree in Ethnic Studies as well as her master’s degree in Gender Equity in Education. Now, Gregory is an Ethnic Studies lecturer at the University. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

“I knew by the end of the semester I wanted to switch my major,” Gregory said. “I knew that I wanted to teach, and I knew that I wanted to teach with my Native lens.”

She is doing just that now as a lecturer in the very Ethnic Studies department from which she earned her bachelor’s degree. It’s a full-circle moment for someone who took a long and sometimes circuitous higher education path before ultimately finding a home at Sac State.

Gregory grew up in the East Bay town of Pittsburg. She was a quiet and reserved child, in part because of her parents’ marital issues, abuse, and neglect in her household. She said her home never lacked love, but school was a safe space, and she loved reading, art, and science.

However, school amplified the challenges that come with being an “urban Native,” a person of Native American descent not living on a reservation. In the face of discrimination, it was easier and safer to leave her Native culture at home.

“Being Native in schools, you get teased. People challenge you for how Native you are. You're not on the reservation,” Gregory said. “There's so many microaggressions that come with just letting people know who you are, so it's easier to be Mexican only. And so, for a long time, I don't think I really talked about it.”

She was a caring and compassionate child, she said, and wanted to be a nurse like her mother. After graduating from high school, she followed her best friend to Fresno State, starting a journey to a college degree that would ultimately last nine years.

Gregory had difficulty navigating her finances while at Fresno State, and eventually her financial aid money ran out. As a sophomore, she dropped out and returned home to help care for her niece, who had been born to Gregory’s high school-aged brother.

Back home, she attended nearby Los Medanos College, where she changed her major from Nursing to Microbiology. Her experience there was positive, but she also began growing anxious.

“I felt like I was running out of time at that point,” Gregory said. “You sit around, and you see your friends your same age having extreme growth and what you think should be you at that time.”

In the fall of 2016, she transferred to Sac State, where her sister had attended. In addition to her science courses, she enrolled in Reed’s class. By spring, she had switched her major to Ethnic Studies with a concentration in Native American Studies.

“For the first time ever, I'm sitting in a classroom being taught by a woman who looks like my auntie, who is talking about things that my grandmother would say,” Gregory said, adding it was also the first time she read a book written by a Native author.

"I grew up with this internal narrative, this worldview that had to stay inside,” she said. “For so long, I was not ready to feel how powerful I could be. Now I know how powerful I am."

Gregory also participated in Sac State’s Pathways Fellow Program, which engages upper-level undergraduates and master's-level students of any major in rigorous, high-quality educational research, preparing them to enter doctoral programs.

Her research looked at the lack of representation of Native American women faculty in the CSU and UC systems, as well as those systems’ lack of Native American Studies courses. She also interned with the College of Education’s Capital Education Institute.

The program, she said, taught her how to write and research effectively, and convinced her to attend graduate school. She earned her master’s degree in Gender Equity in Education from Sac State in 2020.

“I don't think I was really ready to learn until I came to Sac State,” Gregory said. “All my education before, as much as I learned … I don't think I was ready to prepare myself for my future until I was at Sac State.”

In graduate school, Gregory, who had been substitute teaching in K-12 schools, took a job in Elk Grove as the programs associate in the Department of Education for the Wilton Rancheria tribe. She soon was promoted to executive director of education, a position she held until 2022, overseeing educational programming for about 300 children, helping them navigate the unique challenges of growing up on the rancheria, away from their traditional homelands.

“All my education before, as much as I learned … I don't think I was ready to prepare myself for my future until I was at Sac State.” -- Nia Gregory, Ethnic Studies lecturer

Despite working in a Native community, Gregory said she still had to remember that she was a Cherokee and Yuchi woman educating Miwok children.

“I am this displaced-three-times Native woman on top of Miwok land,” she said. “I am a Native woman, but I am not indigenous here. … I am taking a position of power that’s not really mine.”

She loved what she was doing but missed teaching in the classroom. In 2022, she returned to Sac State as an Ethnic Studies lecturer, serving as educator, mentor, and inspiration for current students, much as Reed did for her five years ago.

Reed, now chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies, said Gregory was a dedicated student who participated meaningfully in classroom discussions, engaged with course materials through the lens of her experiences as a Native American woman, and understood the importance of community-based research.

Gregory is a “genuine faculty member who is knowledgeable about the subject matter, creative in her teaching style, and caring with our students” while maintaining active connections with the community and the Cherokee Nation, Reed said.

“Nia places student success of all Sac State students at the forefront of her work, both inside and outside the classroom,” Reed said. “Her quick wit, humane nature, and intelligence draw students’ interest on the topics. She encourages students to become the best version of themselves.”

Gregory said not a day goes by in her classes “where you don’t see a lightbulb go off” in a students’ mind, and that she appreciates the opportunity to “decolonize” and challenge what an educational environment is.

“What I’d really like is to make sure that they own this campus,” she said. “I don’t think we’re taught as students to own this campus. I think students forget they’re the reason why we’re all here.”

Gregory has experience doing that, joining the chorus of students asking University administrators for a Native American student service center immediately after she arrived on campus.

That center, the ‘Esak’tima Center, will open this fall.

“It’s kind of a full-circle moment,” she said of that opening. “It’s nice to show students that the work they’re doing while they’re here is longer lasting than they think.”

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About Jonathan Morales

Jonathan Morales joined the Sac State communications team in 2017 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at San Francisco State University and as a newspaper reporter and editor. He enjoys local beer, Bay Area sports teams, and spending time outdoors with his family and dog.

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