Learn more about the monumental experiences that shaped UNITY 25 Under 25 Honoree Alexis Large Cooley’s leadership development. In her interview, Cooley shares her experiences both in and outside of the classroom that gave her hope and served as a foundation in her journey to becoming a UNITY Ambassador. From her “truly life-changing work at the Native Education Summer Program” alongside UNITY Peer Guide Savanna Rilatos, or the life lessons her mother passed down, Cooley’s story is one that resonates with our UNITY Family.
Written by: UNITY 25 Under 25 Honoree Alexis Large Cooley, a descendant of Confederated Tribes of Siletz in Oregon
The proudest achievement I have made in my academic career was coming first in my freshman class of five hundred-plus students in relation to our unweighted GPAs. I have had many more accomplishments (including maintaining the first rank each semester up to present times) since then, but that was the first time my hard work, dedication to my future, and perseverance were acknowledged. I was always the student teachers expected to do well, so when I would, there were no congratulations attached to it. I seeped into the background with the fake plants and paintings, all the other items in the classroom the teacher did not have to worry about. That changed with my first time being first in my class ranking. I was finally seen.
I have had many experiences outside the classroom that have stayed within my heart and brain to serve as a foundation in my development journey. Though it is an obvious one, being on my high school JV2 volleyball team freshman year was truly a learning experience that has impacted my life. The experience of being on a team showed me how to most effectively work out problems with other people and also set self-boundaries. When you are with a group of people for two hours every day enduring physical limits and mental blockades all while attending school and navigating personal relationships, issues are bound to arise. When they did, I was able to grasp from trial and error how to approach problems to get a mutually positive outcome. I use the same strategies of “I feel” statements and direct speaking to this day in any situation I am in. Not only was I a member of a team, but I was also a human. I was trying to be a full-time student, athlete, daughter, sister, and friend all while pouring myself into being as good of a team member as I could be. As one can imagine, I got burnt out, but through that burn out I was able to detect and set personal boundaries with each position I was in. This allowed me to give my all to each role when needed, but not overlap them. Being able to have these boundaries in current times has given me a rejuvenated look at handling personal dynamics without losing myself.
Another experience I was given that was truly life-changing to me was working at the 2021 Native Education Summer Program. To say this is significant to me is an understatement. I was able to make connections with other Native Americans within Salem Keizer both professionally and personally, rediscover the Native part of me I had pushed aside for the more accepted white ancestry, and learn how to be a leader for Native youth from every background. Through working at the Summer Program, I met Savanna Rilatos. I had no clue when I had first introduced myself that she would become someone I looked up to for guidance and wisdom. Her willingness to give me opportunities to prove my dedication and work ethic has been more than admirable. Savanna has taught me much about what it means to be a Siletz woman and I could never thank her enough. I was constantly hiding from my Indigenous lineage, but seeing so many amazing Native individuals embracing their culture allowed me to reconnect with myself. I was able to step up as a leader for the Native youth in the program using my life experiences and academic achievements to better my guidance. Through working for the Native Education Summer Program and being on my school’s JV2 volleyball team, I was able to learn to better myself as a human being in many aspects.
My instant thought when thinking about an influential role model in my life is Patricia Cooley, the woman who has shaped me in ways I can’t begin to describe. Other titles for Patricia Cooley consist of Patti, Mrs. Cooley, and I feel most important of all, my mom. My mom’s first contribution to my life is enduring back labor for 4 hours to birth me into this world. The hardships my mom had to face didn’t stop there though. She watched my father battle depression and addiction until his death in June of 2007. She was then faced with raising three children by herself on a low-wage income. Though we were poor, she made sure my siblings and I always had the things that we needed. She made sure she went to work every single day, instilling a work ethic into me I could never get rid of. Even when challenges hit her one after another, she would standstill with an aura of compassion, resilience, and determination that didn’t flutter in the face of even some of the worst hardships. She taught me through her actions that everybody deserves your kindness and to conduct myself so that I could proudly say my name in the presence of anyone. Her standing strong and staying assiduous even when the bed was calling her name gave me the determination I use to succeed in everyday tasks to substantial goals. Watching her take some of her most gruesome experiences and mold them into compassion, sympathy, and understanding allowed me to grow into the empathetic person I am today and lies at the core of my existence. Each day, I work to chip away a little more rock surrounding my true being, and each day the person guiding my hand is Patricia Cooley.