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Two education grads find years at Hopi reservation school to be rewarding, though distant from their own family roots

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As an elementary education graduate from Eastern Mennonite University, Rebecca A. Yoder ’10 knew that she wanted to teach, but she never imagined that four years after graduation she would be living and working in an Arizona desert, 90 miles from the nearest shopping center. Now, she cannot imagine being anywhere else.

Yoder and Joilyn Zimmerly ’07 both teach at a school on a Hopi reservation in Kykotsmovi, Arizona. The school, supported by Mennonite Church USA, serves more than 70 students in grades K-8.

Zimmerly, who also majored in elementary education, first interacted with indigenous cultures during her time on an EMU cross-cultural in Guatemala. “I always had a desire to learn about other cultures, and I have always had an interest in Native American cultures,” she said. “Cross-cultural made the idea of coming to a radically different culture appealing.”

In her four and a half years at the mission school, Zimmerly has attended traditional dances, visited students’ homes, learned a bit of the Hopi language, and otherwise tried to take full advantage of this chance to experience Hopi culture.

Unlike many now-infamous mission schools of the early 1900s – notorious for stripping language and culture from indigenous populations in North America – this Hopi school celebrates native culture. While Christian education is part of the school’s reason for existence, the faculty and staff operate according to an unofficial motto, “Build up Jesus, but never tear down Hopi.” To accomplish this, the school teaches classes in the Hopi language, hoping to preserve a threatened tongue, reduced to only 6,800 speakers, according to the 2010 federal census. The school also attempts to incorporate aspects of Hopi culture into its educational philosophy.

Both Zimmerly and Yoder point to their time at EMU as being a crucial part of their success at the school. “The skills I gained, the information I learned, the experience I acquired, and the ways I learned to relate to and care for people during my time at EMU were what I needed to take the leap of faith into life after college,” Yoder said. In contrast to her current rural location, Yoder’s cross-cultural was with EMU’s Washington Community Scholars Center in the District of Columbia.

Working at the mission school has its challenges. Arizona temperatures can soar above 100 degrees on some school days. Accommodations are far from the restaurants and stores which many people take for granted. Teachers’ salaries just cover the basics. And the families of Zimmerly and Yoder are far away, in Ohio and Iowa respectively.

Yet the rewards entice them to stay. “It’s great when I see the kids really enjoy what they’re doing, excelling in sports and academics,” said Zimmerly.

“The best rewards,” said Yoder, “are the moments when my students get inspired to become something great, tell me that I put a smile on their face, or ask deep questions about Christ.”

For Thane Epefanio, principal and head administrator, working with the two EMU grads has been one of the perks of the job. “Those two are part of the best staff I have worked with,” said Epefanio. “They have servant hearts.”

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