After receiving the news that he earned the scholarship, Benally said he was feeling “overwhelmingly blessed and grateful to God for leading me in the directions He has led me over the past three years. I also think an ignited sense of purpose now that I am starting to see my hard work is finally starting to pay off, not only for me but for the people I will help in the years to come.”
Benally explained that coming to Penn State was a personal financial risk, with more affordable options closer to home. His journey has included numerous part-time jobs — many on campus — and spending a large amount of time writing for scholarships and grants.
In addition to the financial risk, Benally said attending a college in the eastern U.S. meant often being the only Native American in classes, organizations and nearly everywhere he went. He said he often found himself advocating and educating on behalf of Native Americans and had a turbulent start to college.
“I now realize those initial times were tough,” he said. “That is what it took to now be the first Native American to win the Udall Scholarship at Penn State and to blaze the trail for more of my people to succeed.”
Over time Benally became more engaged on campus and spearheaded initiatives to recruit more Native American students to the University, culminating in the creation the Indigenous Peoples Student Association, which first met in January 2020. He has also begun work on a University Land Acknowledgment, which is a formal statement that recognizes Indigenous Peoples as the original stewards of the land and pays respect to the relationship with their original territories.
His plans for the future include pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology and returning to the Navajo reservation in order to implement culturally sensitive mental health research and interventions, he said.
“Studying psychology already holds extra incentive for me with my Christian faith and the Navajo teachings of Hózhó (reverence for the beauty in everything on earth), which have taught me the value of human connectedness, spreading hope and finding meaning in life,” Benally said.
Through his undergraduate research, Benally already has an impressive record of scholarship. His work has evaluated participants’ choices in whether they engaged in empathy with Native Americans portrayed in a suffering context, which Benally said was a continuation of ongoing studies of empathy, culture and compassion being conducted in the clinical area of the Department of Psychology.
He said he “hoped to understand further how modern Native American disparities and past atrocities are regarded in mainstream society so that I could better understand how to advocate for myself and my people. More specifically, the psychological abnormalities that root to historical trauma that continue to affect many Indigenous populations today.”
“As a McNair Scholar, I was fortunate enough to have the autonomy to redesign and implement an experimental study on empathy avoidance with my mentor, Dr. Jose Soto,” Benally said.
“The bulk of our research took place over a 10-week internship during the summer of 2019 and resulted in my first research publication in the McNair Journal. I will be conducting a follow-up project in the summer of 2020 that will evaluate in-group empathy avoidance using the same experimental design. Overall, my research is oriented toward the healing of Indigenous peoples throughout America and demonstrates the Navajo term, T’ahdii kǫ́ǫ́ honiidlǫ́, ‘We are still here.’”
Benally is the first Udall Scholarship recipient from Penn State since 2016 and also the University’s first awardee from the health care category.
It’s been an exciting month for Benally. In addition to learning about the Udall Scholarship, he was recognized by the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) as a top-25 Native Youth Leader and earned a leadership award from the Council of Multicultural Leadership at Penn State. He also made the Dean’s List for the fourth semester in a row.
About the Udall Undergraduate Scholarship
Those who earn a Udall Scholarship are provided with up to $7,000 for eligible academic expenses. Awardees are also invited to spend five days in Tucson, Arizona, at Scholar Orientation and have access to the Udall Alumni Network.
The scholarship is open to those who are Native American or Alaska Natives working on tribal policy issues or pursuing health-related careers, or for any undergraduate interested in conservation and environmental issues. To be considered, applicants must be a sophomore or a junior in college and a U.S. citizen or U.S. permanent resident.
Those interested in competing for a Udall Scholarship next year should contact the University Fellowships Office to learn more about the scholarship program, verify that they meet the eligibility criteria and begin the application process. A pre-application will due mid-December, and applications will be due internal at Penn State in mid-January.
The University Fellowships Office is part of Penn State Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at undergrad.psu.edu.