Faculty Spotlight: Roxanne Ornelas

photo of Roxanne Ornelas

  • associate professor in both the Department of Global & Intercultural Studies and the Department of Geography
  • from San Diego, CA
  • teaches classes on the environment, geography, and women's, gender, and sexuality studies
  • conducts research on indigenous peoples, women, water resources, and the environment
  • first person in immediate family to go to college


"I received my PhD in Geography with an emphasis in environmental policy from the University of Minnesota. As an environmentalist, I found that the discipline of geography answered key questions for me about the varied relationships between people and their physical environments. This understanding is most important for me in my work with indigenous peoples to better protect the lands they consider to be sacred.

"There is a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about the lifeways of indigenous peoples throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world. My professional experience of working with them on environmental issues, in consultation with non-indigenous personnel, showed me that better bridges must be built across cultures to improve communication between these kinds of work groups.

"I appreciate how the discipline of geography allows me to take a unique interdisciplinary approach to the many environmental challenges that are faced by indigenous peoples today. These challenges often conflict with their belief that the Earth is sacred and must be honored and protected. Because a lot of my research includes my field experience with Indigenous women, feminist studies play a big part in my scholarship.

"My goal is to raise awareness about the Earth-identified ethic that many indigenous populations experience in their daily living and to teach about the importance of better environmental policy that recognizes their cultural values and the places where they live.

"I am the first person in my family to go to college, and my determination and success has changed my family's future. It is the new normal in my family, and now my younger relatives naturally expect to attend college. Being a positive role model for them, and for other first generation college students, is my greatest accomplishment to date."


"I have a joint appointment in the Department of Geography and the newly formed Department of Global and Intercultural Studies (GIC). I am also affiliate faculty in the Institute for the Environment and Sustainability, so I typically teach classes in all three units throughout the academic year. This fall, I will teach WGS 201 [Introduction to Women's Studies] and WGS/GEO 309 [Native American Women].

"My favorite part of teaching is probably working with students throughout the semester and watching them grow and develop their knowledge in the course subject. I love watching the lights go on, so to speak.

"I believe in a shared and engaged learning environment. As my present and former students know, this means that I prefer an active classroom in which I'm not the only person speaking out. My students are required to come to each class prepared by having read their weekly assignments and by responding in writing to those readings. This allows for a more involved discussion period and student participation in class.

"Each student brings their lifetime of experience into the classroom. It is important for me to tell them that I learn from them and their experiences, too. I find that Miami students are very talented. I guide student projects, but I mostly allow them to have free rein, as long as they integrate my core instructions along the way. I am always impressed by the creativity of students with their class projects when they are given the freedom to spread their wings and fly."


"My research integrates all three subject areas that I teach in, with an emphasis on indigenous peoples, women, water resources, and the environment. Specifically, my research focus is on Indigenous women and their relationship to water.

"In every indigenous community I have worked with from around the world, it is the responsibility of the women to pray for, sing to, and better protect the health and wellbeing of water. Water is considered sacred in these communities. Water is life!"

Outside the Classroom

"My biggest motivation is the belief that the good work I do today to protect our environment will ultimately benefit those who will be living seven generations from today.

"I am looking forward to meeting many challenges in my new role leading Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies within the GIC, and I'm ready to get to work. In the spring of 2017, the department will co-host the Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality Symposium with our sister campus at Wright State University. We alternate the location between our two campuses every other year.

"This year we will host students and faculty on our campus from across the nation to participate in this exciting learning opportunity. I will be very busy, but I am excited to showcase Miami’s offerings in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies through the new GIC."

[August 2016]