Shanya Cordis: Examining the politics of indigeneity in Guyana

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First-generation college students often face a plethora of academic, social and cultural barriers. Shanya Cordis, one of six children and the first in her family to earn a college degree, is grateful for the grounding support of her family and the community resources that helped her to chart a path of thriving in higher education.

“During high school, a series of fortuitous events aligned that led me to Penn State,” Cordis said. “I participated in Upward Bound, a fantastic program that helps students prepare for post-secondary education. Upward Bound introduced me to the College of Education’s S.C.O.P.E. program. I really enjoyed my experience in S.C.O.P.E. which created the opportunity for a full-tuition scholarship to attend Penn State.”

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Cordis, who initially aspired to teach high school Spanish, majored in world languages education at Penn State. During her academic journey, Cordis discovered another program that positively reinforced her career choice -- the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, which helps academically talented students from traditionally underserved backgrounds prepare for doctoral study through involvement in research and scholarly activities. 

“As a McNair Scholar, I worked with Jacqueline Toribio, professor of Spanish at Penn State, on a historic, ethnographic project studying Japanese colonization of the Dominican Republic,” Cordis said. “The combination of experience, training, and critical pedagogy solidified my decision to work in the education sector.”

Cordis graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 2009 and joined Olney Charter High School in Philadelphia, where she advised students through the Pennsylvania College Advising Corps, which aims to increase the number of underrepresented high school students who enter higher education. After one year at Olney, she joined Youth Challenge International (YCI) and worked on a six-month community-based project in Guyana.

“My paternal family is from Guyana,” Cordis said. “Through the YCI program, I was able to further establish deeper community relationships by conducting HIV/AIDS workshops and developing a K-12 Spanish curriculum.”

When she returned to the United States, Cordis was hired by YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School to design and lead workshops that aimed to help high school “pushouts,” or students who had been pushed out of school due to various social and economic factors, prepare to enter the job market or apply for post-secondary education. As her career progressed, Cordis continued to be profoundly impacted, personally and professionally, by her experience and connections in Guyana. She decided to further her education at the University of Texas at Austin. Through her ethnographic research, she worked collaboratively with the Guyanese Organization for Indigenous Peoples, a local indigenous NGO.

“We investigated pressing issues such as ‘how is it that indigenous communities have state recognition for their land rights, yet their land is constantly being taken up by mining and other extractive industries?’” Cordis said. “We used our findings to study the broader impacts on indigenous peoples in relation to the broader colonial history of Guyana, which is very complicated.”

After earning her master’s and doctorate degrees in anthropology from UT Austin, Cordis became an assistant professor of sociocultural anthropology at Spelman College in Atlanta, a historically Black college and a global leader in the education of women of African descent. Now in her fourth year at Spelman, Cordis relishes opportunities to utilize her knowledge, skills, and experiences as a first-generation college student to inspire her own students and assure them that their possibilities are limitless.

Cordis is currently on a sabbatical and writing a book about her research in Guyana. She resides in Atlanta with her partner, Erin Washington, and their cat.



Last Updated April 15, 2021