Eryka Charley: Enhancing the college experience for Native American students

April 06, 2021

Penn State alumna Eryka Charley is inspired every single day by the students she serves. For the past seven years, as director for Native American Student Services at the University of Northern Colorado, she has collaborated with the university’s leadership to address issues that Native American students encounter.

Eryka Charley

Eryka Charley

IMAGE: Provided

“Life isn’t easy for these students, especially now with all the complexities of the pandemic,” Charley said.

Through conversations, Charley gains insight about their experiences and challenges.

Charley, a Navajo woman originally from Coyote Canyon, New Mexico, spent most of her formative years on a reservation. Two women in her family — her grandmother, who instilled in her the importance of education, leadership, and contributing to the community, and her older sister, an American Indian rights attorney — were positive leaders and strongly influenced Charley’s own life journey.

After graduating from high school, Charley attended Colorado College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and continued her post-secondary education at the University of Denver, where she completed a master’s degree in higher education. However, one of the biggest lessons Charley learned didn’t come from a textbook.

“Almost immediately, I discovered there was a lack of opportunities and resources for Native American students on college campuses,” Charley said. “Because of what I experienced and what I saw other students face, my interests turned to addressing this challenge.”

One spring break, encouraged by a peer, Charley traveled to University Park and met with John Tippeconic, who was then director of the American Indian Leadership Program in the College of Education.

“It was the most intense conversation I’d ever had, especially about American Indian education,” Charley said. “I left his office feeling really validated and knowing Penn State was where I wanted to further my education.”

As Charley wrapped up her doctoral studies in the educational leadership program, her dissertation, which focused on high achieving American Indian college students across the United States, confirmed what she had previously observed: The students understood the value of higher education but were overwhelmed by the lack of support on their campuses. Fortunately, Charley said, her experience at Penn State was positive and memorable. She specifically recalls working with two faculty members, Kai Schafft and Ed Fuller, who were instrumental in helping her find spaces to articulate her thoughts and ideas.

“They were willing to do the extra level of work needed to ensure that my dissertation was worthy, including mentoring me through the process,” Charley said.

Charley, herself, now has the honor of serving Native American students at UNC by providing them with emotional, academic, and social support. Charley is gifted with the ability to establish relationships and earn students’ trust.

“Fundamentally, there is a richness to being able to take an interest in someone’s journey,” Charley said. “It’s something I am truly grateful for.”

Charley was honored in December by The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development with their 40-under-40 award, which recognizes emerging American Indians who have demonstrated leadership, initiative, and dedication and made significant contributions in business and/or in their community.

She resides in Greeley, Colorado.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021