Four years ago, Doris Tinsley entered college with her life mapped out.

A member of the Shinnecock Nation, she was going to be the first member of her family to graduate from college. She joined the Corps of Cadets at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, pursued a degree in international studies with a minor in Arabic, and made plans to join the Navy after graduating.

She hopped on the interstate of life; her cruise control set, and her personal GPS programmed for a trip to a bright future. Then, while rolling along at top speed, she decided suddenly to shift gears. She put her life in reverse.

“I kind of had a flip,” Tinsley said, laughing.

Tinsley ultimately reprogrammed her life route. Financial constraints while at Norwich led to her to transfer, and she wound up at Virginia Tech, where she graduated last year, earning a degree in sociology with a concentration in American Indian studies from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

During her time in Blacksburg, she decided to start a nonprofit organization to help Native American high school students find financial aid and scholarships to go to college, and committed her future to helping young Indigenous people like herself find a path to career success.

She represents the perfect example of a first-generation student that Virginia Tech President Tim Sands aspires to see grow and prosper at the university — and the type who, now an alumna, deserves to be recognized on today’s National Indigenous Peoples Day.

“I wanted to change my career and be an advocate and a person of change for my community,” Tinsley said, explaining her life shift. “I had to let go of my dreams of the Navy and the military, and I switched more for being a person to be a voice for native communities.

“Growing up, my mom always instilled in me the importance of education and community. My mom always allowed us to learn more about our stories, our language, our ceremonies, and our traditions. I felt like this is kind of what I had to, what I needed to do.”

Tinsley, who grew up with her siblings in a single-parent household on Long Island and graduated from North Stafford High School, began thinking about a change in her future when she became involved with Native at VT, a group dedicated to advancing the visibility of American Indians and other Indigenous peoples on campus and raising awareness of issues that confront these diverse populations.

She also started attending meetings at the American Indian and Indigenous Community Center. Former director Melissa Faircloth gave Tinsley and other native students the freedom to plan events, including the first Indigenous Peoples Day event on campus and the first Indigenous cultural graduation ceremony.

“Although Virginia Tech is a predominantly white campus, and I was a Native American woman, I was the only native student in most of my classes. I told my nieces and nephews and siblings, ‘Yes, at first, it was a really big culture shock, and it was really hard to learn in such a big environment, but who I am now, the professional person that I am now, I owe it to Virginia Tech,’ ” Tinsley said. “Virginia Tech gave me a lot of opportunities - a lot of chances - to grow and learn and be this confident Indigenous woman that I am now … I will always be a proud Hokie.”

During her event planning sessions and conversations with other Indigenous peoples on campus, Tinsley started thinking bigger. She wanted to help Indigenous students find the resources to go to college or stay in college; not just to better their own lives but also to return home and help those in their home areas.

Tinsley started NAHEM—Native Americans in Higher Education Mentorship, a nonprofit national network that connects native and Indigenous students across the country to a “cultural mirror and accountability partner,” who then provides mentorship and one-on-one workshops on topics related to financial aid, scholarships, and other higher education services.

“It’s my passion,” Tinsley said. “It’s something that was instilled me at a young age to always give back and to always help others where you are. My organization is something to where I can show other Native American students that we can come from a reservation, we can go to college, we can get our tools [to be successful], and we can bring them back to our people.”

In addition to overseeing her nonprofit organization, Tinsley spent the past year working as a manager of student success at the Indian University of North America in Custer, South Dakota. She worked as an advisor for more than 300 students, helping them to connect on campus with financial aid, counseling services, medical assistance, networking opportunities, and more.

Tinsley sought her current position at the university after working a two-month internship as a youth counselor at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, in the summer of 2019 before her senior year at Virginia Tech.

“I fell in love with the language, the cultures and the ceremonies of the people,” she said. “I came out here, and I was like, ‘Oh, I have to come back.’ I was so eager to find a job in the Black Hills.”

Soon, Tinsley will begin a new job as the associate director of alumni relations and affinity groups at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, which she starts on Oct. 25. While working full time, she will be taking courses toward a master’s degree in public administration and tribal governance at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

After she earns her master’s degree, she plans on applying to the University of Washington School of Law, with the goal of getting her law degree. That law degree serves as a final step in her march toward her dream position.

“My dream job is to be a tribal law advocate for Indian Country,” Tinsley said. “I would love to go back to my home reservation and be a lawyer.

“My biggest goal is to have a native-run law clinic that’s built by natives for native students. I want my law clinic to be a breeding clinic for future law students and to be able to allow students to kind of explore affordable options to go to law school. I really want to have my own law clinic, but also use it for people to practice law and learn law from leading native attorneys in the country.”

Tinsley’s career path may have taken a big turn a few years ago. There have been stops along life’s highway and future stops to make, but those only figure to be temporary. Helping Indigenous people — her people — keeps her motivated, with her foot mashed on the accelerator.

Her future destination awaits, and she can’t wait to get there.  

Written by Jimmy Robertson