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A&S Grad finds belonging, celebrates Native American culture at UK

By Meg Mills 

A photo of grad Nizhoni McDarment
Nizhoni McDarment

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 15, 2022) — The University of Kentucky strives to ensure every member of our community — regardless of who they are, where they are from, what they believe or who they love — feels a sense of belonging.

This sense of belonging is something journalism and political science double major Nizhoni McDarment had spent her whole life searching for, but says she didn’t find until she attended UK.

A child of a military family, McDarment spent 18 years moving from state to state, reintroducing herself to every new person she met. Each introduction came with questions about her name and her Native American culture. She and her family are proud Native Americans.

“For a long time, my Nana was not allowed to share that she was a proud Native American woman because of the fear that people would not accept her for who she was," McDarment said. "When she and my family were finally able to share this important part of our identity, a lot of people did not understand the culture and the importance of our traditions.”

McDarment’s great-grandmother, her Nana, worked to share this important part of their identities within their communities, visiting local schools where she would bring pieces of their family’s regalia — moccasins, hogans and cradleboards — to share the significance of their culture. McDarment’s mother began to carry on the tradition when McDarment was in elementary school.

“They both shared with me from a very young age how important these aspects of our culture were, and how we could share the beauty of our traditions with every person we met,” she said. “My mom and Nana chose education over fear and differences.”

When McDarment received her UK acceptance letter, the first person she called was her Nana.

“I could feel her grinning from ear to ear on the other side of the phone as she said, ‘education was the most important thing in the entire world.’ She reminded me to focus on my goals and to value the education I was going to receive.”

When McDarment stepped foot on UK’s campus in Fall 2019, she says she finally felt a true sense of belonging and inclusion.   

“I was valued for my dreams and ambitions," she said. "I was asked questions about my future goals, and how the university could help me achieve them. I was even given an amazing opportunity to be a William C. Parker Diversity Scholar, where the one thing that made me different quickly became the one thing that gave me endless opportunities to succeed.”

McDarment quickly became involved at UK, joining Girls on the Run, the KRNL Lifestyle + Fashion magazine, Gamma Phi Beta Sorority and UK’s Mock Trial team. She was also heavily involved in the Panhellenic Council.

“Belonging to me is feeling valued and important in the community you’re in," she said. "Feeling like I belonged at UK was instantaneous for me because I was given so many opportunities to find community within my majors, colleges and the campus. Moving from community to community my entire life, it was easy to assume that going to UK would be a similar experience of trying to fit into a new place without any guidance; however, my experience was the complete opposite. I could tell that UK wanted to provide me with every opportunity to succeed and that has continued throughout my four years here. Feeling a sense of belonging here elevated my education and allowed me to truly succeed in all aspects of college life.”

During her time at UK, McDarment said she had many standout professors, but wanted to thank David Stephenson from the College of Communication and Information’s (CI) School of Journalism and Media.

“I had Professor David Stephenson for both Mobile Journalism and Multimedia Storytelling during my time at UK,” she said. “He is a very hands-on and understanding professor who is constantly going the extra mile to help his students be successful. I could always tell that he cared about each student’s personal learning experience. He wanted his students to truly grasp the material and be able to apply it to our future career paths.”

She also thanks Richard LeComte, with The Hive in the UK College of Arts and Sciences, who became a huge mentor for her, and her advisor from CI, Schyler Simpson, for being a constant source of support.

McDarment is set to graduate from UK this Friday, Dec. 16, from both the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Communication and Information. However, the McDarment family is not done at UK. Her sister, who was just accepted, is considering attending UK in Fall 2023. Her older sister, Nikinabah, graduated from the university in Spring 2022.

After graduating, McDarment plans to attend law school to become a media lawyer.

“No matter what my future holds, I will always carry my time as a Kentucky Wildcat with me," she said. "The University of Kentucky not only gave me an education beyond my imagination, but a community that stood by me through the ups and downs of university life. I am proud that I represented my family as a Native American woman.”

And while her Nana passed away in 2020, McDarment is carrying on her legacy. 

"One of the greatest lessons my Nana taught me is from a Navajo prayer — to 'always walk in beauty' wherever I go," she said. "This was something she taught to her daughters, who taught it to my mother, who taught it to me and my sisters."

McDarment is now sharing that lesson with her UK community:

"To walk in beauty is to walk in harmony with all of life’s things. To me, walking in beauty means to walk with good intentions. To walk with beautiful and kind words. To walk with passion and drive in every footstep. To walk with the people who bring out the best in you. To walk with beauty through all seasons of life. And to walk across this (Commencement) stage with the knowledge in your heart that wherever you walk, you will always carry your time as a Kentucky Wildcat with you."

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.