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COVID ‘knocked the wind out of’ Navajo Nation, its colleges. Here’s how they’re recovering

Many tribal colleges and universities are located in remote areas and often serve older and low-income American Indian students. Many lack access to basic necessities like internet and running water, making learning during the pandemic especially difficult. As Stephanie Sy reports our ongoing series, “Rethinking College," it’s forced school administrators to find new ways of meeting student needs.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tribal colleges and universities are often located in remote areas and are more likely to serve older and low-income American Indian students, many of whom lack access to basic necessities, like Internet and running water. That has made learning during the pandemic especially difficult.

    And, as Stephanie Sy reports, it has forced school administrators to find new ways of meeting their students' needs.

    This is part of our ongoing series Rethinking college.

  • Dee James, College Student:

    So, sometimes, I will have LTE through here.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Thirty-four-year-old Dee James and I are on the hunt for a cell phone connection in Northwest New Mexico near her home on the Navajo Nation.

    I got one bar, but you get nothing there?

  • Dee James:

    No.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Definitely not enough for a Zoom call. So, how long are we without signal now?

  • Dee James:

    Until we get a little further up.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    This drive has become routine for James since the beginning of the pandemic, when Navajo Technical University, where she studies business administration, closed its campus and moved classes online.

    Just right here, off the side of the road, at a park?

  • Dee James:

    Yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    All right.

    She pulls up to the side of the road, not for the view, but for the signal strength, enough to do her online homework and join Zoom calls.

  • Dee James:

    I have got two bars.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And that's money for you.

  • Dee James:

    And that's — yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Digital dead zones are a common problem in the remote Navajo Nation. Over 50 percent of residents lack broadband Internet altogether. And those that have it pay between $20 and $40 more per month than in other parts of the country.

    James' home Internet only works half the time, and, one day last year, it all felt like too much.

  • Dee James:

    I was on my way to work. And I got to the stop sign down here. I had called my sister and I told her, I'm done. I can't do this. I'm tired.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    James' problems are common among the nearly 22,000 tribal college students in the U.S.

    In addition to not having Internet, half work to support themselves and their families while going to school. A majority are food-insecure, and more than two-thirds were housing-insecure even before the pandemic.

    That instability contributes to tribal colleges' low graduation rate, just 19 percent. Add in the pandemic, and tribal colleges have seen an 11 percent drop in freshmen enrollment, with more rural schools seeing drops as high as 30 percent.

  • Elmer Guy, President, Navajo Technical University:

    It was a challenge. It was sad.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Elmer Guy is the president of Navajo Tech in Crownpoint, New Mexico, one of the largest of the 37 tribal colleges and universities in the U.S.

    He says, when the pandemic hit, the administration gave students federal aid for to pay for food and transportation. It also scrambled to keep students plugged in.

  • Elmer Guy:

    We were trying to figure out ways to keep our students connected. We paid for their Internet for three months. We made a deal with the telecoms, gave us a discount.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    They have since installed hot spots in parking lots like this one. Students can drive here and log onto their Zoom classes in their cars. Some students drive hours just to get reliable Internet.

    Tribal colleges across the country have been making similar changes. Nebraska Indian Community College used COVID-19 funding to set up Wi-Fi towers across two reservations. Red Lake Nation College in Minnesota gave its students cell phones and hot spots.

    And Dine College in Arizona is building micro-sites off the main campus as a way to reach more students where they are.

  • Carrie Billy,  American Indian Higher Education Consortium:

    We were far behind in terms of the underlying infrastructure, the operating infrastructure, because the federal government has never lived up to its responsibility to adequately fund our tribal colleges.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Carrie Billy, a member of the Navajo Nation, is the president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. She says pandemic relief funding, including $1 billion earmarked for expanding broadband infrastructure in Native communities, has been a boon for tribal colleges, but it doesn't close the gap.

  • Carrie Billy:

    Without that sustained investment, assistance, families, individual students aren't going to be able to afford Internet at home. But there also needs to be an investment in infrastructure in facilities, in dorms, in cafeterias, in health centers.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    With many students and staff now vaccinated, science labs, the innovative Vet Tech program, and other hands-on learning are restarting at Navajo Tech, as are some of the traditional gatherings that make Native colleges about more than academics.

    Navajo Tech recently brought back small healing ceremonies for students. On the campus hooghan, which, in Navajo, means home, a staff member and medicine woman guides Twila Largo in prayer. During a chaotic time, these ceremonies offer students like Largo an opportunity to reestablish harmony with the world around them, a key tenet of Navajo culture.

  • Twila Largo, College Student:

    You can't think negative when you're in a ceremony. You feel that peace. You feel that comfort in your heart.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Navajo Technical University Provost Colleen Bowman says, this is what makes tribal colleges unique.

  • Colleen Bowman, Provost, Navajo Technical University:

    We're responding to the needs of the community. And, as diverse as our Navajo communities are, there's brilliance everywhere, there's struggle everywhere. We take it all.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As for Dee James' struggles, she persevered. And now that she's able to go to campus more often to work and study, she's confident she will complete her degree later this year.

    She also knows some things will never return to the way they were.

  • Dee James:

    We did lose my uncle to COVID, unfortunately. I mean, it really impacted me and my family.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The Navajo Nation became an epicenter during the pandemic. And students and staff here at Navajo Technical University were trying to stay on track, even as they faced incalculable losses to the tribe.

    In the final weeks of the spring semester, Navajo Tech students, including James, gathered to remember the loved ones they lost to the virus, writing their names on white balloons, then releasing them.

  • Dee James:

    At some point in time, when you lose someone, you can't hold onto them forever. You have to be able to let them go.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Provost Bowman, also still grieving the loss of several family members, says the hardships have only fortified the mission of tribal colleges.

  • Colleen Bowman:

    It may have hurt us, knocked the wind out of us for a while, but we're still here. And through education, that's the only way that we're going to get better and understand what happened to us and try to prevent it from happening again.

    All across the country, all tribal colleges and universities have that. They have that power. They have had it all along.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Always the power to survive, now, with an infusion of funding and attention, perhaps a chance to thrive.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Crownpoint, New Mexico.

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