By Brooke Donald
It's hard to get Denni Dianne Woodward, one of this year's Amy J. Blue Award winners, to talk about herself.
Ask her about her role as associate director of the Native American Cultural Center, and she talks about the talented students, alumni and others she feels privileged to work with every day.
Tell her she's described by colleagues as the glue that holds the office and community together, and she brushes aside the compliment by adorning the same sentiment on the team she's been a part of for 25 years.
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"I'd just as soon not be in the spotlight," Woodward says.
But Woodward's dedication, selflessness and warm spirit have set her apart during a career full of firsts at Stanford.
She organized the first Stanford Native Immersion Program for incoming freshmen, curated the Native American Collection at the Cantor Arts Center and championed the Stanford Powwow, the largest student-run powwow in the country.
Her colleagues say she is unafraid of challenges and has long been on the front lines of debate about issues of diversity and affirmative action.
"She is at once warm and protective, welcoming to all, fiercely dedicated and incomparably hard working," wrote Nicole Bazan, chair of the Native American Alumni Association, in the award nomination letter.
Woodward began at Stanford in 1981 in what was then the Dean of Students office. She wore various hats before moving in 1987 to the cultural center. She split her time between the center and what was then Student Organization Services. Soon after, her responsibilities at the Native American Cultural Center became a full-time job.
As associate director, Woodward's work focuses on community building through educational and cultural programming.
"I'm an advocate for the students," she says. "I like to help students assess what it is they want to do."
She helps students get connected with other members of the Native American community on campus and off. Her Rolodex has helped students land internships and jobs and find mentors to guide them through their studies and beyond.
"You know that line at the top of a job description that says, 'must be able to shift priorities'? Yeah, that's at the top of our job descriptions because they do shift constantly. It depends on the needs of the student," Woodward says.
Woodward is Mescalero Apache. She grew up in the suburbs of the Bay Area, but her mother's family is from New Mexico and Texas, and the cultures of those areas were brought into her home while she was growing up.
She fondly recalls visits, as a young girl, to the de Young Museum in San Francisco with her grandmother and seeing the exhibits of Native American artifacts.
"Sometimes the labels didn't say much; my grandmother knew so very much more. I thought it would've been so much more interesting if the labels reflected that," Woodward says.
Those experiences led her to study art history and anthropology at San Jose State University. She said those courses were the only way at the time to really study and learn about Native American culture.
After her studies, Woodward worked in Indian education programs in the Sequoia Union High School District helping students learn about the Native community by sponsoring cultural and language programs and bringing people together.
She also worked at an Indian employment program and helped her mother produce a nationally distributed newspaper on Indian affairs.
Woodward says when she joined Stanford, her mother was extremely proud.
"Stanford students are really inspiring. They come from all over the country with such talent and experience. They move mountains," Woodward says. "It was exciting to think I'd be able to help them accomplish their goals."
There are about 350 undergraduate and graduate students of the Native community on the Stanford campus coming from all over the country, the Pacific Islands, Canada, and Central and South America.
"They come to Stanford from far away, and like other students feel like there's no one like them," Woodward says.
That's where the cultural center steps in.
Woodward describes the center, located in the Old Union, as a hub for students to gather, eat meals, study, organize events or simply find refuge.
"We have an extremely open door policy," she says. Office hours would make her job a little more predictable, she laughs, but the goal is to be available.
Woodward says the Native American Cultural Center is different from what other universities offer because it is an actual location, not just a program.
"It is literally the center of the community," she says.
On a recent visit, students mingled in the lounge while boxes stuffed with supplies for the weekend's Powwow cluttered the hallways. The walls were decorated with colorful posters of past events. Offices were filled with drums and other musical instruments.
Woodward says she has watched students evolve during their tenure at Stanford from feeling like they have no support into realizing the enthusiastic community in which they are a part.
"I watch our students grow close to each other. I watch our students interact and invite friends and roommates," she says. "You become confident and secure and it enables you to reach out."
'Maybe it is a cool club'
The Amy J. Blue Awards honor staff members who are exceptionally dedicated, supportive of colleagues and passionate about their work.
The other two winners of this year's award are Steve Papier, supervisor of engineering trades in Land, Buildings and Real Estate, and Donnovan Somera Yisrael, manager of relationship and sexual health programs at Vaden Health Center. The three will be honored on Wednesday, May 16, in a ceremony that will take place from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in the central courtyard of Lagunita Court (on Santa Teresa Street, across from Roble Field).
The award comes with a $3,000 prize and an "A" parking permit for the 2012-13 academic year.
In an award nomination letter, her colleagues said Woodward has "a tireless ear and a strong heart."
Woodward says she is honored by the award, but trying to adjust to the attention.
"It's wonderful, but rather uncomfortable," she says.
She characterizes the past winners as "the doers and the movers" of the campus, ultimately conceding that "maybe it is a cool club."
So as a new member - however hesitantly - she smiles graciously at the recognition, then turns to her computer and is back to work.
Kathleen J. Sullivan contributed to this report.
Source: Stanford University