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monica tsethlikai

Monica Tsethlikai, PhD

I grew up in stressful circumstances. I am one of six children, in a family that was struggling to make ends meet. Additionally, my father was an abusive alcoholic who frequently left us for weeks at a time without money. In spite of the difficulties at home, I still managed to receive straight A’s in all my classes. At home, I was responsible for taking care of my three younger brothers and helping with the household chores.
Instead of being recognized for all my accomplishments, I was labeled a defiant troublemaker and was repeatedly told by the teachers at my schools that I would never amount to anything. Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, among many other American Indians and Mexican Americans, it was hard to find success stories for inspiration that could contradict such disheartening messages. Most of the kids in my neighborhood were never expected to graduate from high school, much less college.
By the age of 13, I felt hopeless: I didn’t believe that my life would ever improve. To make matters worse, my seventh grade teacher decided that my sister and I were impolite, and she reprimanded us in front of the entire seventh and eighth grades. She complained to the principal and a simple misunderstanding resulted in my expulsion from school.
Being humiliated in front of my peers confirmed that life was not worth living. I attempted to take my own life. Lost and scared, I was admitted to a mental hospital. It was a frightening place and none of the other patients were even close to my age. But in counseling, with the help of a wonderful psychologist, I found comfort for the first time. Through my work with her, I gained clarity about my life, which allowed me to better cope with the difficult realities of my home and family. I felt I could continue to live my life with the knowledge she taught me, especially the insight that the hardships I experienced were not my fault—rather, they were due to my environment. She helped me to understand that my father had a disease that kept him from being a good father and that my mother’s own childhood had prepared her to accept abuse as normal. She had been abused herself and did not know how to protect her children.
My experience in therapy showed me the healing power of psychology, and I decided that I wanted to learn how to help others just as I had been helped. This determination made my experience in the hospital positive and life-affirming instead of pushing me to continue down a destructive path. After returning home, I decided to go back to school and I continued to get straight A’s. Part of my motivation to do well in school was to prove my teachers wrong and show them that I would succeed.
Following high school, I went to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. My senior English teacher couldn’t resist telling me I would never graduate, but I graduated in 3.5 years with majors in psychology and Japanese. Luckily, my two older sisters were also attending Notre Dame and we provided each other with the support we needed to graduate. It was hard to leave my younger brothers—always taking care of them had made me protective—but I knew that the best thing I could do for all of us was to get the best education I could.
College gave me a newfound confidence. For the first time in my life, I was told I was intelligent. Notre Dame also came as an unexpected culture shock, not because I was one of the few American Indians there, or even because I studied abroad in Japan for a year, but because the other American Indian students seemed just as different from me as I felt from the white students.
Many of the American Indian students at Notre Dame had never been to their reservations. They knew they were part American Indian, but they did not know very much about their cultures. Realizing that not everyone grows up going to ceremonies and hearing their language spoken gave me a stronger appreciation for my own Zuni culture. It was this realization that made me begin to enjoy participating in the ceremonies on the reservation. I had always concentrated on the bad things that happened on the reservation, the alcoholism and the poverty, and I was angry at the U.S. for the reservation’s condition. I wanted to be a warrior and fight the power, just like Malcolm X.
Traveling abroad and learning about the lives of other Indian students helped me reframe my negative experiences. Instead of focusing on the poverty that surrounded me, I realized that I had been surrounded by incredible generosity and love. Every time I left from a visit with my relatives on the reservation, my sisters and I had new jewelry made by one of my aunties and a car full of food for the long drive home.
After graduating from college, I worked as a juvenile probation officer, trying to help kids like me get on a better path. Many of them had never seen a different way of life and thought it was better to join in the chaos of alcohol and drug addiction that surrounded them because they saw no way out. I knew there was one way out–education! I worked hard with the kids to help them understand that life could be different. Most importantly, I constantly rewarded them for making the decision to have a better life by showing up for school and staying sober and out of trouble. I had many successes with young people, but there were kids that I couldn’t reach—the ones that ended up murdered, in prison, or dead by their own hands—and the weight of the loss of these lives became too heavy.
I realized I wanted to do more than try to help once a child was already in trouble. I wanted to understand why some children like me could experience trauma and still succeed and why other children were not able to escape lifestyles of poverty and violence. This idea of success despite adversity began to intrigue me deeply and I considered how to research it further. Many researchers have focused on how providing social support helps kids overcome difficulties, but I wanted to understand the abilities that the children themselves possessed that promoted resilience, to potentially help future disadvantaged children succeed. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to further my education at the University of Kansas through the recommendation of a former professor who had become my mentor, Dr. Sharon O’Brien. Continuing my education and receiving a Ph.D. has granted me further access to helping others.
Currently, I teach at the University of Utah and my work is dedicated to understanding cognitive and social development in relation to how children remember the events and the interactions with others that shape their lives. My Zuni heritage has instilled in me the idea that giving is essential, and now that I have reached a position of influence, it is my responsibility to give back to others.
I take enormous pride in my work because I feel that it reflects who I am. I personally have grown up in the context of adversity and know how hard it is to change your life when it doesn’t seem like very many people support you. When a person is caught going down a self-destructive path, the keys to promoting resiliency are optimism, empathy, and acknowledgement of destructive life factors. It is not an easy task, but through further research we can create a stronger awareness of how to overcome the harmful environmental conditions common in many youths’ lives.