Native American college students found strength in their heritage that helped them get through the pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic was difficult for all college students, but it was particularly hard on Native American students. Many saw the coronavirus rip through their tribes, and they struggled with lack of internet and other limitations on their reservations.
Covid-19 among American Indian and Alaska Native persons was 3.5 times that among non-Hispanic white persons, according to the CDC. At one point, the Navajo Nation was a national hotspot with one of the highest infection rates. One reason it hit reservations hard was a lack of health-based infrastructure.
For Kiara Flores, a Kuupangaaxwichem (Cupeño) & Northern Ute student at California State University San Marcos, her reservation in Pala, Calif., had funerals, "every single day for at least three weeks."
"Within two weeks, we lost five family members," said Flores. "Once one house got it, every single house had gotten it."
This had a huge impact on enrollment for indigenous students.
Undergraduate college enrollment was down 5.9% in the spring from a year ago, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. For Native American students, the drop was 13%, the largest decline among racial and ethnic groups. This is particularly devastating when you consider that American Indian and Alaska Native students already have the lowest 6-year graduation rate of all ethnic and racial U.S. groups at 39%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"I think what we're seeing is Native students going home and staying on the reservation in their communities and with their families until the pandemic gets better," said Robin Zape-tah-hol-ah Minthorn, a citizen of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma, a descendant of the Umatilla/Nez Perce/Apache and Assiniboine Nations and director of the doctoral program in education at the University of Washington Tacoma. She conducts research that emphasizes methods in supporting Native American college students and campus climate.
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Besides the level of cultural responsibility Native American students have, Minthorn says there are a variety of other causes for decreased enrollment rates such as the digital divide that existed before the pandemic but has worsened since.
"It's also about infrastructure," said Minthorn. "Although many of our classes have been remote by zoom or other mechanisms, it doesn't always mean that our students have a sustainable or adequate Wi-Fi connection."
The FCC says 628,000 tribal households lack access to standard broadband, a rate more than four times that of the general population, and a 2019 study by the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University found nearly one in five reservation residents have no internet at home.
For Nathan Becenti, a member of the Navajo Nation and an upcoming University of Nevada Las Vegas junior, lack of internet access was a vital reason for not traveling back home before his reservation closed.
"I couldn't go home because there's no Wi-Fi out there, said Becenti. "I need a refresher from time to time and I just couldn't have that."
Charles Golding, a member of the Quechan tribe, is a recent graduate at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, where their 6-year graduation rate for Native students has increased to 69% in 2018 from 27% in 2008.
The university credits this progress in closing the gap for Native students to the variety of academic and social supports such as cultural centers, allocated funding, and mentorship programs designed to help them feel welcome on campus. To Golding, without those supports he wouldn't be in the position he's in now.
"If they didn't exist, I know 100% I would not have been as successful. I know that for a fact," Golding said.
When the pandemic hit, struggles for Native American students only intensified further.
Golding's university canceled in-person class and enacted an immediate notice for students to leave the dorms. Despite cheaper prices to get home via plane, he didn't want to risk his family's health and made the 28-hour, 3,000-mile trek from Minneapolis to Yuma, Ariz., by car.
"I ended up taking a road trip across country just to go home for the summer," Golding said.
Similarly, Brandon McIntire, a recent Yup'ik and Unangax̂ graduate from Harvard, was given a three-day notice to leave his dorm. After making the journey back home to Alaska, McIntire had to wake up at 5 a.m. to participate in classes on the east coast that made him re-evaluate his education.
"When coronavirus, started to pick up and get bad, it kind of felt like – why are we still doing weekly reading assignments when the world is like this?" said McIntire. "School, it felt like, to me, didn't care about me as a student. So why should I care about it when I can help support my family during this time?"
After in-person studies resumed, McIntire traveled back to Harvard to resume his studies, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology as the only Alaska Native in his class.
Flores, who began her first year of college during the pandemic, struggled immensely due to a busy home environment that affected her academic performance.
"When I started off, it was hectic. Everyone was home. I couldn't concentrate," Flores said. "I ended up failing two of my classes that first semester. I wasn't proud of it."
To Minthorn, the solution is easy. Institutions need to create support programs and allocate resources to meet Native students where they're at.
"We just have so much that we need to be taking into account," Minthorn said. We need to "be very intentional about what are the resources recommended to them but also making sure reminding students what we're doing."
"And then we are physically showing the support that we have for them, whether that's the physical, like in-person support, but also the virtual access to that because we have to be flexible right now."
In the meantime, relying on Native values helps keep students on the path to completing their education despite effects of the pandemic.
"The reason why I got through was because that's what I was taught ̶ don't let anything stop you," said Becenti. Grit is "the reason I'm here."
For Flores, going along with change and maintaining her motivation in wanting to be a resource for future college kids from her reservation keeps her moving forward.
"Adapting to things is the way we're still going to be here no matter what," said Flores. "Just make your experience worth it. Make it make your people proud."
Pandemic or not, acknowledging where you came from and the strengths you embody from your culture is a key factor that helped McIntire see success in his college education.
"As Native students attending institutions of higher education, you exemplify survivance. These institutions weren't built for you," said McIntire.
"It's OK to acknowledge that adversity, but know that you are strong enough, prepared enough," McIntire said. "Your family and your ancestors worked hard to get you to where you are – and survived."
CNBC's "College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. McKenzie Allen-Charmley, a rising senior at Arizona State University, is an Alaska Native and Black journalist originally from Anchorage, Alaska. She is a breaking news and talent development fellow at CNBC. Her mentor is Brandon Gomez. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.