The Navajo Nation’s Diné College Faces the Worst Coronavirus Outbreak in the Country

A dry landscape stands on Navajo Nation lands in the city of Gallup, New Mexico, June 2019.

This column contains corrections.

Author’s note: “Indian Country” appears in this column because it is a self-identifying term used by tribal nations as well as tribal colleges and universities (TCUs).

The coronavirus pandemic is a calamity for untold numbers of college students across the country. However, it is hard to imagine a college where students’ circumstances are more dire than Diné College, which serves the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation across the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

The Navajo Nation now has the highest per-capita infection rate in the United States—all the more devastating given that its people have long been excluded from critical resources, such as running water and adequate health care. In Arizona, Native Americans have accounted for about 20 percent of COVID-19 deaths, even though they make up only 5 percent of the state’s population. In fact, the situation is so alarming that Doctors Without Borders, a group that usually works in conflict zones and areas affected by natural disasters, sent at least two teams of doctors to Navajo Nation to help fight the disease.

Due to this devastation, many Diné College students are caring for family members who are sick with COVID-19. At the same time, students—many of whom already lived in poverty before the pandemic—have lost jobs, face child care shortages, and are without electricity or running water. It is unimaginable that during a global pandemic, tribal communities in one of the most developed nations in the world still do not have access to running water, making hand-washing a luxury and catapulting the spread of the virus. Between 30 and 40 percent of residents do not have running water. Moreover, Navajo Nation and other tribes in Indian Country are facing the greatest digital divide in the nation: Indian Country has limited spectrum access that would provide wireless broadband service over tribal reservations. Often, Diné College students must travel dozens of miles to connect to the internet to participate in online classes.

In short, the pandemic has exposed the legacy of America’s history of brutal mistreatment—and current neglect—of Navajo Nation and other tribal communities.

This is the situation that Charles M. Roessel is facing as the president of Diné College. The Center for American Progress spoke to him about how he and his more than 1,500 students are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost half of Diné College students are part time or over the age of 25. The college only has six campuses across the entire Navajo Nation, which crosses three state borders, making transportation key to accessing a college education.

Like other tribal colleges and universities, Diné College is chartered by its tribal government and shares the mission of tribal self-determination and service to its tribal community. The nation’s 37 TCUs are funded differently than mainstream public colleges and other minority-serving institutions in that state governments are not required to fund them.** Because of treaty obligations between the U.S. federal government and tribal nations, it is the federal government’s rightful responsibility to heavily fund TCUs; it makes up more than 70 percent of their revenue, compared with less than a quarter of revenue at mainstream institutions. Yet the federal government has not appropriated funding for TCUs to full authorization levels of $8,000 per student. And for the roughly 16 percent of non-Native students that TCUs enroll, they generally receive no federal funding at all.

On an 81-degree day, Roessel spoke to CAP via Zoom from his air-conditioned office in Arizona—which he felt lucky to be in since so many of his students do not have the luxury of air conditioning. Roessel emphasized that policymakers must take into account the unique needs of tribal nations and, in particular, their need for expanded broadband access. He cautioned against lumping in tribal students with all marginalized students and TCUs with all minority-serving institutions. He also discussed the importance of stimulus funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and noted that the centurieslong neglect of Indian Country requires extra creativity to stretch the very limited resources available.

This interview, conducted May 7, 2020, has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

CAP: Navajo Nation has the highest infection rate of COVID-19. What has that been like for your students?

Roessel: We would hear from students: “I can’t go to class because my grandfather died. I can’t go to class because my aunt died.” Professors are going through the same thing. And I think people began to lean on each other in a way that we weren’t before. We had one student who tested positive for COVID-19 early on and “Zoomed in” to her class from her hospital bed.

Navajos live in a matrilineal society. Traditionally, you move in to the wife’s home. So, you have clusters of homes. That’s one of the reasons why the Navajo Nation has been hit so hard by COVID-19: There are not single houses all over the reservation—they are in clusters, intergenerational. So, you have the parents, the grandparents, and the great-grandparents in a small area.

CAP: Since the coronavirus hit and campuses were closed, how have things been going overall?

Roessel: Every day is about just getting through that day. Right now, I look out my window on the campus, and I can look into a parking lot and count 10 vehicles. Today is our final day for finals, and those students are sitting in their vehicles [so they can access Wi-Fi] taking finals. You know, college is a very intimate process, if you will, and to have it now be in a ’59 Chevy with a laptop, that makes it very difficult.

CAP: 86 percent of Diné College students lack internet access at home. What have been some of the challenges of going online?

Roessel: I was teaching a photography class.* I only had a handful of students in the class, but only one had access to Zoom. One [class] we did by email, one I did by text, and one I did by telephone. Students are traveling on average 15 to 30 miles to use our Wi-Fi, or going to parking lots of McDonald’s and Burger King to steal Wi-Fi signals.

But our students have other needs. Even prior to this, the two biggest hurdles that our students overcome in order to be successful are child care and transportation. Our students are older and have families where everyone has lost their job. Getting online is only half the battle.

CAP: Is the college supporting the community in other ways around COVID-19?

Roessel: We had some emergency room nurses call and say: “I can’t have my son or my daughter at home because I come home every day, and I don’t want them to get sick.” So, we allowed them [the children] to stay in our family housing.

We’ve donated over 3,000 meals to elders during this time. It’s costing us about $10,000 in donating food, but where else are they going to get that food? And that came from our students. They said: “What happens to our elders? We want to deliver the meals.”

CAP: What can the federal government do to better support TCUs during and after the coronavirus?

Roessel: The problem in Indian Country is we don’t start at zero, we start at negative 30. Money is always going to be an issue. One thing the federal government can do is expand the access to the internet. Allowing the spectrum for Indian Country to be open would go a long way for people to access that in tribal nation. That would have a huge, huge impact.

CAP: How do you expect funding from the CARES Act to be used?

Roessel: We’re going to use a huge portion to improve our broadband capabilities. It’s also [going to be used] to provide [recording] studios so that faculty can have a place to do their lectures from and tape them.

We’re going to take our sites out into the community. We’ve identified six [facilities]. We would take a classroom and set it up with laptops, internet connectivity, with a professional staff to help with getting online, tutoring. And the classes would be online Zoom courses that would be fed from our main campus site.

What we’re also going to do is go to Arizona State University, University of Arizona, University of New Mexico, Northern Arizona University, University of Utah, and say: “We know you have [Navajo] students.” So, you now have an opportunity in these sites to have students come to a place close to their home and take classes remotely.

CAP: How are you thinking about the summer and fall terms?

Roessel: We’re looking at two eight-week sessions for the fall [instead of a semester block], with the first week being maybe more things that really need to be face to face. And that way, if we have a second wave [of infections], those second sessions will be online already. We have to schedule classes differently—spread them out a little further, take temperatures of people coming in. Right now, what we’re dealing with the summer term is the high number of incompletes [from the spring term].

CAP: Is there any traditional Navajo wisdom that has guided you, the college, or the community in coping with the situation?

Roessel: It is what is so obvious to everybody now: that everything on this earth is interconnected and related. What happens way over there impacts what happens right here. It’s the mission of the college: “Sa’ah Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhóón.” What it means is about where we fit in nature, where nature fits in us, where we fit in the world, where the world fits us, how we’re in balance and harmony, and that our goal is to reach that balance and harmony. And sometimes it’s out of balance, and our philosophy of education is: How do you get back in balance?

Conclusion

Diné College will soon receive more than $6 million in funds through the CARES Act to address some of the needs of both its students and the college. Of that money, $1.3 million will be used for institutional and emergency aid and $4.8 million will come from a pot of funding for minority-serving institutions. Diné College will also receive a portion of the $20 million designated for the nation’s 37 TCUs through the Bureau of Indian Education.

But the CARES Act allocations will not be enough to offset the financial losses of TCUs, let alone address the history of socioeconomic, geographic, and broadband barriers in rural Indian Country that have limited college completion. As a result of these obstacles, Native American students have the lowest six-year college completion rate in the country.

TCUs are projected to take a $65 million revenue loss over the course of the 2020-21 academic year. Tribal governments will be forced to significantly decrease support to their colleges due to loss of casino and other revenue, as well as increased emergency costs related to the pandemic. TCUs will also take a financial hit if they see declines in enrollment and have to boost scholarships due to students’ hardships.

In the next stimulus bill, Congress should make up for the chronic underfunding of TCUs by increasing funding to these institutions and investing in their students with funding that can be used to address access to basic needs—such as housing, transportation, running water, and electricity. One crucial fix would be to help TCUs with internet infrastructure, given that 68 percent of people on tribal lands do not have access to internet service. For example, Congress could make TCUs eligible for discounted internet access through what is known as the federal “E-Rate” program in order to bring down the high costs and improve the quality of internet service. To expand internet access in Indian Country, however, Congress would also need to invest tens of millions of dollars annually to establish broadband infrastructure.

COVID-19 has exposed—and exacerbated—the inequalities that face tribal communities and make it so difficult for tribal college students to complete their education. Congress can and should use the current crisis in Indian Country as an opportunity to make up for the ongoing neglect of tribal nations, institutions, and students.

Viviann Anguiano is an associate director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.

*Correction, May 21, 2020: This column has been updated to accurately reflect Charles M. Roessel’s statements.

**Correction, July 15, 2020: A previously cited source incorrectly stated the number of TCUs in the United States. This column has been updated to accurately reflect that number.

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