Saundra Mitrovich (Tyme Maidu Tribe) leaving UNR for NCAI fellowship in D.C.
First Nation's Focus
RENO, Nev. — Saundra Mitrovich was 13 years old when she went to her first United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) conference.
She didn’t really have a choice. Mitrovich’s mentoring aunts, Roberta, Kathy and Julie, firmly insisted she went.
“It wasn’t an option,” Mitrovich said with a laugh. “My aunties really inspired me and taught me about sovereignty and what it meant to be responsible to a community.”
The conference proved to be a seminal moment for the young Mitrovich, an enrolled member of the Tyme Maidu Tribe of the Berry Creek, Rancheria, and a descendant of the Yahmonee Maidu Tribe in Quincy, Calif.
“As a youth, I remember what that (UNITY conference) meant to me and the leadership development that that taught me,” Mitrovich said. “You learned all these things in these workshops, develop these skills, and you implement them at home. It was developing a passion for working with people in community, developing a sense of civic engagement and responsibility — not just for my tribal community, but as a human being.”
She might not have known it at the time, but Mitrovich had found her calling.
Since that fateful conference, Mitrovich has been on a mission to support and empower native youth in her professional and everyday life.
Whether it’s preparing them for higher education, creating opportunities for them to participate in research and presentation, and influencing them to attend national conferences — like UNITY.
Most recently, Mitrovich did all of this and more as the outreach and retention coordinator and indigenous student services program coordinator at the University of Nevada, Reno.
After nearly seven years in her role at UNR, however, Mitrovich is moving onto a new venture on the East Coast.
Come July 22, she will be working in Washington, D.C., at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which awarded Mitrovich with the Wilma Mankiller Fellowship.
According to the NCAI website, the fellowship “provides an exceptional opportunity for emerging young professionals from across Indian Country to work side by side with national leaders in tribal policy.”
Mitrovich said following her fellowship, which is an 11-month commitment, her goal is to return to working in Northern Nevada. Her husband, Sam, and daughter, Sasha, will stay in Reno while she’s working in D.C.
“What I hope to gain is a really hearty toolkit — to bring those skills and knowledge that I acquire back home,” Mitrovich told First Nation’s Focus. “I hope to be a conduit in D.C. Anything that I can do to bring the voice of not only my home tribe that I come from inherently, but also all the Nevada tribes here that are dear to me, that’s what I’ll be there for and to do the work for.”
‘A tremendous asset’
During her time working at UNR, Mitrovich was an integral voice for native youth and tribal communities across the Silver State, said Jose Miguel Pulido Leon, director of The Center at UNR. He pointed to the fact that Mitrovich managed to build close relationships with all 27 federally recognized tribal communities in Nevada.
“She made sure to the best of her ability that they were consulted on anything that would impact them,” he said, “and be connected to important issues that effect tribal communities in the state of Nevada.”
Not to mention, the support and opportunities Mitrovich gave UNR students, whether they were getting their undergraduate, master’s or doctoral degree.
“She ran all of these programs for students,” he continued. “And she was their central resource for indigenous students on campus to ensure that they got close to graduate and crossed the finish line.
“She basically balanced two jobs. She’s been a tremendous asset to the institution.”
One of her most recent contributions was the creation of UNR’s Indigenous Research Institute for Student Empowerment (IRISE) program.
Through IRISE, indigenous students are paired with graduate and faculty mentors to engage in research throughout the year and present at local, regional and national conferences.
In addition, IRISE provides monthly workshops, including a teleconference opportunity for indigenous students from Nevada attending institutions in and outside the state.
“The vision and mission for the university is to get more of our indigenous students researching, writing, publishing in their voice — and, specifically, in their academic discipline,” Mitrovich said.
And although she will soon be working on the other side of the country, 2,600 miles away from Reno, Mitrovich will hold close her experiences working with native youth and tribal communities in Northern Nevada.
“I have a strong commitment to the university and to the programs that are here, the students that are here, the communities that are here … so I don’t think that will ever go away,” she said.
Big shoes to fill
When asked what she’s most proud of during her tenure at UNR, Mitrovich paused in reflection, a flood of memories welling her eyes with tears.
“The way the community has come together to support different initiatives, programs, activities for youth, I think that’s what I would be the most proud of,” she said. “Because I’ve never felt alone in this work. I always knew there was someone I could reach out to, both on campus and off. And that’s hard sometimes to find in community.”
With Mitrovich’s departure from UNR, Leon said the university is hoping to find someone with a similar dedication to native youth and cultural understanding.
In other words, The Center is seeking someone who can build upon Mitrovich’s indelible mark as leader.
Leon also knows that filling Mitrovich’s shoes will be a near-impossible task.
“I don’t know if we can find another Saundra — I don’t think that’s realistic on our part,” Leon said of replacing Mitrovich. “I think it’s finding someone who is going to be the best fit to support students. And if they’re able to function on that higher level of all of the maneuvering that’s needed on a larger scale for statewide issues and tribal politics then that would be wonderful.”
With that, Leon said the university is in the early stages of conducting a nationwide search for the position.
USDA Rural Development Nevada State Director Phil Cowee said he is pleased to have the Washoe Tribe as one of 47 communities included in the national program.