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This college student from the Navajo Nation now wants to become the chief of police for her reservation


CNBC's "College Voices 2020" is a series written by CNBC summer interns from universities across the country about coming of age, launching new careers and job hunting during a global pandemic. They're finding their voices during a time of great social change and hope for a better future. As part of the series, each student chose a recent college graduate to profile to provide an up-close and personal look at who the class of 2020 is, what issues they're facing as they try to find a job in these extraordinary times – and how they're tackling them. Here is the story of Devonna Begay, a first-generation college student from the Navajo Nation and a rising senior at the University of Portland.

Three years ago, Devonna Begay left her Navajo tribe in Arizona to start a new journey at the University of Portland. It was as milestone: She would be the first member of her family to attend a four-year college.

Because of her excellent academic performance in high school, Begay was able to get a scholarship that covers all her tuition and housing expenses. Today, Begay is a rising senior majoring in sociology with a concentration in law enforcement, and with many goals and dreams to accomplish after graduation.

But Begay's vision of the future is not the same as it was when she started college a few years ago. In fact, her life has changed dramatically in the last six months.  

Devonna Begay hiking at Zion National Park in Utah.
Source: Tonena Begay

In March, when Covid-19 first started to spread around the U.S, the University of Portland asked all students to leave their dorms and go back home. This was a hard hit for Begay. She knew that going back home was not an option. There, she would not have access to internet to continue her studies and there was also the risk of getting her family members infected with coronavirus. Luckily, she was able to stay with her boyfriend in Portland. But still, she struggled.

"The last four months have been a challenge for me. Both of my parents lost their jobs because of Covid-19. The Navajo Nation has been hit pretty hard and there have been times when I felt hopeless for not being able to support them," Begay said.

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On top of the financial hardship, one of her uncles passed away and two members of her family tested positive for Covid-19.

"I wish I could be with my family…. I am stuck here, I can't go home, and all these things that are happening," Begay said.

And then, on May 25, George Floyd was killed after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes, sparking a massive movement against police brutality and discrimination. Thousands of people around the U.S. went out into the streets, night after night, asking for justice for Floyd's death. They demanded reform of the law-enforcement system and even called on the government to defund the police.

All of this makes it particularly difficult to focus on her studies and career – especially given that she is pursuing a career in law enforcement. She has actually begun to rethink her career path.

"Being a female and a minority in law enforcement will be out of the norm for sure," she said. "I'm trying to see what I can do to better prepare myself and help others the best that I can."

Begay believes that "police reform needs to happen but in a strategic way," where officers have access to counseling and mental therapy.

She was on track to join the U.S. Army next year but decided with all that has changed, that wasn't the path she wanted to take. Now, her goal is to become chief of police for her reservation. Begay wants to apply her knowledge in sociology to create connections between mental health and law enforcement – so that social issues can be solved in a better way and not by resorting to violence.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.