Soboba tribal member begins graduate program at San Diego State

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Rachelle Peterson, a member of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, begins the graduate program at San Diego State University. Valley News/Rachelle Peterson photo

Mike Hiles, Special to the Valley News

Rachelle Peterson, a member of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, found her calling while an undergrad student at California State University San Marcos. She was the first-ever graduate from its American Indian Studies bachelor’s degree program in 2019. As a member of the campus’ American Indian Student Alliance, she was given a platform to reach a bigger and new population of people that could be educated on issues surrounding Indian Country. She served as chair at AISA for her last two years at the college.

Peterson is now enrolled in a graduate program at San Diego State University that will lead to a career as a school psychologist serving the Native American population. She is part of the school psychology program and is also a scholar on the SHPA grant for the upcoming school year. SHPA stands for Supporting High-Intensity Mental Health Needs of Native and Indigenous Youth: School Psychologist and Counselor Advanced Preparation.

SDSU’s school psychology program prepares school psychologists to be systems change agents in culturally diverse schools. It embraces an ecosystemic philosophy-orientation and emphasizes multicultural content, processes and experiences. The program provides an integrated sequence of theory, research and practice in seven areas over a three-year sequence of full-time study, followed by a full-time, yearlong internship. This integrated graduate-profession program culminates in the educational specialist degree in school psychology.

“During my last year as an undergrad, Geneva Lofton-Fitzsimmons, CSUSM’s president’s Native American Council Board and student program coordinator for NARCH, informed me about the program and helped me get into contact,” Peterson said. “She has offered so much support and guidance to not only me but many other Native students. I decided on SDSU because of the advanced preparation the program has to offer and the SHPA grant which focuses on mental health needs of Native and Indigenous youth.”

Peterson began a six-week long summer course July 7, and started her fall semester classes Aug. 24. SDSU has given permission for the program to allow some in-person classes but it may change as protocols surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic change. Currently, she is scheduled to attend four of her seven classes on the campus and three others online.

“Without the continued encouragement, support and guidance of Dr. John W. Tippeconnic III and Dr. Stanley Rodriguez I would not have pursued my master’s degree,” she said. “Throughout my educational journey they have been my mentors and role models teaching me the power of education. I am so grateful to have such strong Native leaders to show me the way.”

Before starting this next chapter of her academic journey, Peterson worked at Riverside-San Bernardino County Indian Health Inc. as part of its Native Challenge program, which serves youth and families through health education programming.

“Working at Native Challenge gave me a stronger perspective on issues within the educational institution, specifically regarding the Native student population,” she said. “The work we did with these students made me realize the need for mental health professionals for Native youth.”

School psychologists work within school settings to help diverse students succeed academically, socially, behaviorally and emotionally. They collaborate across school, home and community to facilitate positive educational change. They are change agents within the schools, serving multicultural and diverse populations and striving to ensure that every student receives an equitable education.

“I hope to give back to my tribe and Native community in the future by working at Noli Indian School and Sherman Indian High School,” Peterson said. “I am very excited for the near future and the many opportunities it will bring. School is never easy. It can be difficult trying to balance work, family, friends and school all at once.”