How Native American Studies Changed Valentin Sierra's Path

Valentin Sierra is a graduate student in School of Social Welfare. He talks about the importance of having Native faculty mentors and his work on suicide prevention among Native urban youth.

Val Sierra’s

journey through higher education and the professional world has been filled with people like them – professors and health professionals who are Native American. That’s unusual. “I came from a Native American Studies department where all the faculty were Native, all my classmates were Native. Even in the workforce, we were in an all-Native team, and we only worked with Native youth.”

Val is a first-generation college student of Yaqui and Mexican heritage from the Yaqui community of Central California. They are also in the first year of their MSW/Ph.D. program in the School of Social Welfare. “I think having a Native faculty mentor just tremendously helps shape who you are as a student.” When they were accepted at Berkeley, they started wondering what their cohort and the faculty would be like.

5.2 million people in the United States identified as American Indian and Alaska Native, either alone or in combination with one or more other races. Out of this total, 2.9 million people identified as American Indian and Alaska Native alone. Seventy-one percent of Native people live in urban areas. 

(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Office of Minority Health)

“Working with youth in Sacramento County, we have to deal with child protective services and other social services sectors at the county and state level. Often times, the people that we deal with are predominately white, and that can be said for the whole social work field. It's dominated by white women which poses problems working with Native youth. So, I was kind of eager to join a program, and that be the representation of what the cohort would look like. But I was really surprised to see the actual diversity in who was represented alongside me in my classes as well as the faculty.”


“We brought mobile testing units out to different Sacramento urban Native American events like the Sacramento Pow Wow, Honor Elders Day, and Big Times.” The idea was to meet the communities right where they are rather than them having to come to the resource. Their work was so successful that they were offered and accepted a full-time position.

Val moved into the Youth Initiatives Department and worked on a new project focused on Native American youth suicide prevention. Native youth who live in urban areas have the highest rate of suicide in the country. An important piece of their work looks at how to use culture as prevention.

“We were examining how if you are a person of color, if you have a stronger sense of identity with your racial/ethnic group, you're less likely to complete suicide or use drugs or drink or abuse alcohol. As a health center we created spaces and opportunities for them to learn what does it mean to be a native person in today’s society.”


Now along with all their practical experience, Val wants to think critically about the social problems Native communities continue to face, the impact of historical trauma, and Native resiliency. “Part of what I’m hoping to do is look at is how Native people can draw upon our histories and look at ways of restorative healing. Again, turning to the aspect of culture is prevention. What are programs we can develop that help Native people reconnect or help them better understand their histories and their identities, and the legacy of resilience to become healthier?”

And there’s just one more way that Val would like to give back to and help support their community. “I would love to be a professor because I had Native professors to lean on as an undergrad. I want to continue that legacy and build that mentorship.”

To learn more about Native American communities, watch for events on the Native American Student Development and the American Indian Graduate Program events page, visit local community organizations, go to a Pow Wow, a Big Time, or one of the many Indigenous Arts Markets (check Facebook for postings).