First Native American woman to get Oxon degree

A newly-graduated student is “proud” to have become the first Native American woman to receive a degree from the University of Oxford.

Kelsey Leonard, a student at St Cross College, graduated on 22nd September after completing a two-year MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management.

She is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, a Native American tribe, whose reservation is located near Southampton in New York State. Leonard was “surprised” when she learned of her historic achievement, calling “the whole thing a bit surreal”.

She said that her time at Oxford was a “unique experience,” which she “really enjoyed, particularly meeting graduate students from around the world and being taught by a faculty at the cutting edge of research in environmental science.”

It was not only for academic reasons that Leonard enjoyed Oxford life, however. She added: “My favourite places around town were The Turf and Angels.”

Raffaella Facchini, a second year dPhil student at St Cross, said: “Kelsey was always involved in college life and was a really great person to be around.

She added: “I’m really proud that she’s my friend, and that she was able to use her skills and intellect to make a difference and represent her community.”

Facchini also noted that Leonard was “conscious” of her symbolic importance for the Native American community. In keeping with her traditional roots, Leonard attended her college pre-graduation ceremony wearing Native American accessories.

Her mother Michele affirmed that it was “not an either or” between academia and “respecting her culture”. She added that she was “very proud”, and that the whole community was “really excited for Kelsey”.

Leonard believes that she could become a role model for future Native Americans. She said: “It is hard for some of us to go to university, because we are conflicted about leaving behind our tribal nation.

“I hope that by seeing people like me coming to places like Oxford, young Native Americans will feel at ease making that choice.”

Her mother added that Native Americans have “not had good role models in the past”, but that her daughter’s accomplishments will go some of the way to changing that.

Stefany Wragg, Vice-President of the St Cross SRC, said: “The entire student body is extraordinarily proud of Kelsey’s accomplishments, and regards her as a truly outstanding model of the St Cross student, who thrives in the stimulating academic environment of our particular college.

She added: “We offer Kelsey our most heartfelt congratulations and warmly anticipate her further achievements in the future.”

Before attending Oxford, Leonard completed her first degree at Harvard in Sociology and Anthropology, while also remaining an active member of her Native American community. She served as the executive co-President of the United National Indian Tribe Youth, a youth movement for Native Americans.

Leonard’s dissertation was entitled “Water Quality For Native Nations: Achieving A Trust Responsibility”. It investigated the USA’s system for regulating water resources, particularly those in areas belonging to Native American tribes.

Since graduating, she has returned to the US, where she has been consulting for various non-profit groups on water resource management projects.

A University of Oxford spokesperson said: “We are proud that our diverse community of postgraduate students includes the University’s first Native American student, and hope that Kelsey will not be the last from her community at Oxford.

“Oxford is committed to taking the best students, whatever their background and wherever they come from.”


PHOTO/St Cross College