The first women of Tongva descent to be awarded Ph.D.s at UCLA celebrated that milestone today at the Graduate Division Doctoral Hooding, held on a campus that now sits on the ancient land of their ancestors.

Theresa Jean Ambo and Yve Chavez of the Tongva Tribal Nation proudly stood with their colleagues, friends and family members today at Royce Hall. But they were not alone in celebrating academic success. This year, 14 American Indian students are being presented with undergraduate degrees at UCLA; seven more are receiving master’s degrees. Last month, six American Indian students graduated from the UCLA School of Law. In total, all the graduates represent more than a dozen tribal nations from across the country.

Both Chavez and Ambo, who were involved in the tightly knit community of American Indian students at UCLA, say that the network of support they found on campus was instrumental to their success.

“My experience within the community of American Indian students at UCLA was very positive and a vital component of my academic achievements,” said Chavez, who received her Ph.D. in art history. She is especially grateful to the American Indian Graduate Student Association where scholars — focused on educating others about Native American culture — support one another.

As a researcher of the Chumash and Tongva artistic legacies found at four Southern California missions, Chavez wants to ensure that the story of California Indian artistic agency is at the forefront of California mission art studies. A graduate of Stanford, she chose UCLA for graduate studies because of the reputation of the art history department and the physical proximity of the campus to her native homeland and heritage. She is the recipient of the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Chavez will continue to work with native communities.

Ambo has been actively involved in the UCLA American Indian community, which she describes as “small but powerful,” for nearly 15 years. She first met her husband, an American Indian student of Juaneno descent, at a campus meeting of the American Indian Student Association in 2005. Her sister is also graduating from UCLA this year, with a B.A. degree.

Now a Bruin with three degrees from UCLA, Ambo received her Ph.D. in education, from the Division of Higher Education and Organizational Change. A researcher who focuses on Southern California tribes and members’ access to higher education, she will begin teaching at UC San Diego in the Department of Education in the fall. She received support from a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Across the country, Native American students are underrepresented at every level of academic life. UCLA’s American Indian students make up just .5 percent of the undergraduate population. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions at UCLA has a dedicated recruitment staffer for native students, and partners with student groups and other local organizations to recruit and retain students and help them through the application process.

But there’s much more that can be done by higher ed institutions, Ambo said. Her dissertation outlines 30 specific recommendations that can be implemented to enroll more American Indian students.

“The pieces and players are there — people have the right attitudes — but things are at a standstill,” she said. “There’s something that is not moving the dial forward. I saw this year after year, which is why I did my dissertation study [as a] comparative case study. How do you change the culture of an elite institution? Overall, UCLA needs to continue to foster relationships with local tribes, first and foremost, and acknowledge that this campus is on the ancestral homelands of the Gabrielino-Tongva. That is a great place to start.”

UCLA history professor Ben Madley, outgoing chair of the American Indian Studies Program and author of  the award-winning “An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873),” agrees.

“UCLA is on Tongva land so it is very appropriate that UCLA is educating Tongva people,” said the professor, who served on Chavez’s dissertation committee. “And it’s very exciting that these are the first two Tongva female Ph.D. graduates of UCLA. But I hope it is the beginning of much deeper engagement with the Tongva-Gabrielino community.”

For more commencement news and photos, go here.