Indigenous student leader leaves legacy at Penn State

Rebecca Marcinko
August 02, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Guided by his faith and inherent pull to make a difference in the lives of others, Timothy Benally arrived at Penn State from the Navajo Nation without a clear destination but with a set of guiding principles that would help him get there.

“I just kind of knew I wanted to use as many of my gifts as possible to help people,” Benally said.

After juggling options like biology or a premedicine track, Benally graduated from the College of the Liberal Arts with a degree in psychology this past spring. And along with his degree, Benally left Penn State with a packed and versatile resume, including working with the University to formally acknowledge its location on Native land.

“Every day felt like a trailblazing experience being far from home with no formal guide on how to navigate as an Indigenous student in higher education,” Benally said. “I don't mind taking up that servant leadership, that time and just kind of being the guinea pig. I figured that ... God really allows us to use our struggles as a testimony to help others [in] the ways that we hurt.”

The Navajo Nation inhabits the four corners of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. And according to Benally, few people from his home are afforded the opportunity to receive bachelor’s degrees. Despite the area’s size, which Benally said is comparable to West Virginia, it has minimal resources. For example, West Virginia has thousands of grocery stores while the Navajo Nation maintains a mere 13, Benally said.

“Growing up seeing that and seeing the impact that that's had on my people, not only physically with the lack of resources, but psychologically with trauma and feeling forgotten, losing hope a lot of times, is hard to comprehend,” Benally said. “But at the same time, I watched some of the most beautiful expressions of community that I have ever seen in this life.

“Community creates a really strong buffer for our people when it comes to survival — literally — and the same can be said on a college campus like Penn State, especially where there are not a lot of Indigenous people in education in general.”

Benally recognizes the importance of community and building bridges with other people. He found community and mentors within organizations like the Penn State Student Black Caucus and the Latino Caucus. After seeking guidance from the Undergraduate Admissions Office and the Multicultural Resource Center, Benally helped create the Indigenous Peoples Student Association as a space for Indigenous students as well as an opportunity to work toward more equity within the University.

“I felt it was the best way I could love the most people, and I really enjoyed seeing a lot of my peers thrive and pick up on that community,” he said.

Benally received a Stand Up Award from the Rock Ethics Institute this past spring as a result of founding the Indigenous Peoples Students Association and for his work in helping draft the University Land Acknowledgment.

Throughout his undergraduate experience in the College of the Liberal Arts, Benally took advantage of the flexibility offered in his education — his drive to learn led him to “max out” his electives. Moreover, certain Liberal Arts courses — like LA 103 Professional Development for the Liberal Arts Student — helped him succeed in not only creating the Indigenous Peoples Student Association but also with the rest of his lengthy list of accomplishments. He was a resident assistant, an adjunct instructor for the Aurora backpacking program, a World in Conversation facilitator and the Blue Band’s uniform manager, just to name a few.

“Being able to meet lots of people from lots of different backgrounds — from psychology, to sociology, to biobehavioral health, to rehabilitation and human services — between the whole mixture to that class, I got a really great understanding as to how to help not only Native kids, but just people in general,” Benally said. “That helped me especially as an RA … It really just gave me a good understanding of people's needs and how to meet that on campus.”

And while still excelling at other commitments, Benally became the interim communications director for the Navajo Nation Office of the Speaker amid the coronavirus pandemic. He balanced completing a full course load, participating in extracurriculars and raising scholarship money while helping to create transparency within the Navajo Nation Legislative Branch, including in critical legislation and current affairs like the 2020 census and election.

During his junior year, Benally was awarded a Udall Undergraduate Scholarship for his demonstrated commitment to improving health care for Native Americans living in the Navajo Nation.

Though he recently resigned as interim communications director to pursue further education — particularly in community development — Benally’s initial pre-college goal of helping people has not been abandoned. He has a few pending job offers in Washington, D.C., and said he hopes to gain experience in government relations and Native American law.

“My junior year, I held three jobs, maintained scholarships and took at least 18 credits. Then my senior year, I was working full-time and finishing my degree and also volunteering a lot with the COVID-19 relief efforts out of the Navajo Nation,” Benally said. “I feel like I jumped off a treadmill going 100 miles an hour. I was lucky enough to take care of my finances enough to really just kind of slow down and read some books and prepare for grad school.”

Above all, Benally advised current students to look at quality over quantity during their undergraduate years — “How close [the things you’re involved in] are to the expression of your faith and your values, what you really want in life. [Everything I was involved in] really centered around a lot of the God-given love in my heart for people,” Benally said. “I’ve always had a gift in understanding, in bridge-building, just at [the] core being a biracial individual.

“Being able to build bridges — instead of tearing them down — has been something that I've been fortunate enough to do during this pandemic … But really just do as much as you can in undergrad. If something seems like it might be fun, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it alone. Just go for it and see. See what you can do.”

To learn more about Benally and other Liberal Arts Change Makers, visit la.psu.edu/changemakers.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 13, 2021