Monument Valley graduate overcomes grief, challenges to embark on college, career – Navajo-Hopi Observer

KAYENTA, Ariz. — Tristan Fall Gray, 17, graduated May 15 from Monument Valley High School with 12 college credits under her belt in early childhood education through a dual enrollment program at Northland Pioneer College.

Gray’s ambition for education is largely due to influence from her teachers and her parents. She is happy for the head start on her higher educational endeavors, she plans to continue with more college courses this summer.

“I plan to take English 101 and hopefully by fall, transfer to Mesa Community College to challenge myself to do a dual major and finish my early childhood education [degree] and begin my nursing program,” she said.

As a career choice, Gray wants to work at a day care center and work directly with children. She also aspires to continue her education in a nursing and become a travel nurse and eventually a pediatrician.

Gray’s favorite teacher, Kaitlyn Zinnecker, who teaches chemistry at MVHS, may have influenced her decision to pursue education in the nursing and health fields.

“[Ms. Zinnecker] always made chemistry interesting and exciting because she always had us do many hands-on lab [assignments],” Gray said.

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Tristin Fall Gray poses May 15 with a framed photo of her late grandmother Helen Benally after her graduation from Monument Valley High School in Kayenta, Arizona. (Submitted photo)

Zinnecker was contacted for comment and was humbled to find out she was Gray’s favorite teacher.

“That’s super sweet of her. I didn’t know I was her favorite?” she said. “Tristin was a wonderful and hardworking student. She worked great in a group and was always eager to participate in class discussions and labs, and asked really thoughtful and excellent questions. She’s got a bright future and would make an excellent scientist.”

Gray’s accomplishments were the result of her commitment and focus, and encouragement from her teachers like Zinnecker, her friends and family. She imagined her last year of high school differently, however, rather than dealing with a pandemic and the isolation of remote learning.

“Not attending classes in person, not seeing my friends and teachers was very hard,” she said. “[There were] internet issues, some students were not as fortunate as I was, especially those living in remote areas that couldn’t get services. For me, my internet would buffer and of course Frontier always had that problem, and my classes would shut off in the middle of class.”

To top off the hardship of last year, she lost her maternal grandmother Helen Benally, who she was very close with.

“I never thought I would face losing my grandma,” Gray said. “I had no one really to turn to but my parents, so I wondered how our Diné people across the Navajo Nation dealt with grief alone. That was my own personal challenge.”

She explained that the last year was a very humbling experience for her and said it provided a time for her to reflect on what is important.

High school life will be missed, and Gray said she will miss the socializing with friends the most, and the excitement of being with friends at football games and helping to run the concession stand. She will also miss the various school-sponsored events and the many miles of traveling across the Navajo Nation with her friends to attend games and conferences.

Gray identified some highlights of her high school career. She played football competed in discus and shotput on the track team. One big highlight was being selected in 2018 as a student-athlete to travel to Australia for the Down Under Bowl sports program to compete in track.

“I did pretty good competing against very competitive people across the world,” she said. “Overall, I did pretty good.”

She is also thankful for the support she received.

“I want to thank my parents who have been there for me as the foundation of my high school years, [as well as] support from my brothers, my sisters and extended family,” she said. “My high school years would not have been as exciting [without them]. [I am also thankful] for the educational support [I received that] made Mustang Country worthwhile.”

As Gray turns the page of a new chapter, she is determined to start adulthood and set out to accomplish goals she always dreamed of.

“Once a Mustang, always a Mustang,” she said with enthusiasm.

Gray is a Navajo tribal member, she lives in Kayenta with her family. She is originally from Black Mesa, Arizona. She is the daughter of Travis Gray Sr. and Joan A. Gray and the granddaughter of the late Helen Benally. Her clans are Tódich’ii’nii (Bitter Water), she is born for Tł’ógi (Hairy Ones), her maternal grandfather’s clan is Tó’áhani (Near the Water), and her paternal grandfather’s clan is ‘Áshįįhi (Salt People).