Every Wednesday, 19-year-old Ashlyn Adakai gets up early, determined not to be late for her three-hour chemistry lab at 6 p.m. at Northland Pioneer College (NPC) on its campus in Winslow, Arizona. His weekly commute is approximately 300 miles round trip. Yet Adakai never missed a class.
Around 1 p.m., Adakai and his father, a mechanic, get in the car to leave the house on a Navajo reservation near Page, Arizona. They drive about three hours, or 150 miles. When they arrive on campus and Adakai joins her class, her father waits in the car until she finishes, often not until 9 p.m. The two drive three hours in the dark night, past silhouettes of canyons. Around midnight, they arrive home.
“I’m always strict with not wanting to miss a class,” Adakai said. “I feel a little emotional thinking about all that my family has done for me. They were a big part of my college upbringing. They will drop anything for me just so I can go to my labs .
Adakai is one of six siblings and the first in his family to go to college. She also receives a Pell grant, a federal aid that supports students from low-income households. The few times Adakai’s father couldn’t drive his daughter because of work, her older brother made the trip.
Adakai explained what drives her and her family to keep going.
“There is virtually no accessible health care where I live on a Navajo reservation,” Adakai said. “You have to drive for hours to get to the hospital. I have had personal experience with this problem in my family. They’ve been through a lot. My dream is to hopefully be a doctor and come back to serve my community.
With gasoline expenses only increasing, Adakai was able to pay for his ride with an NPC scholarship that covers student travel expenses. But Adakai said she wouldn’t have known about the help if she hadn’t felt comfortable asking an NPC staff member for help.
“On our Navajo reservations, we are taught that if we get an education, we can come back to our community and help out,” Adakai said. “But the fact is, Native Americans have the highest school dropout rates. Also, many cannot attend college due to financial problems and lack of resources. Which won’t stop me.
Native American student enrollment has declined this year.
“This should be alarming to all of us,” said Dr. Bryan Brayboy, president’s professor at Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation and director of the university’s Center for Indian Education. “We’ve had two years of a downward trend, and it shows no signs of slowing down. One of the biggest challenges for Indigenous students on almost everyone’s list is finances: how do you charge for things? »
Brayboy noted that there is often a myth that Indigenous students get paid for their education, and “it’s not true.” A related problem is that many native students, especially in Arizona, are not at the college level in reading and math.
“There is also a question for me whether the institutions are also ready for indigenous students,” he added.
Cheryl Crazy Bull is President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, which provides scholarships and support for Native American students as well as tribal colleges and universities. She agreed with Brayboy and pointed out what institutions can do for students like Adakai.
“There’s a lot of evidence that only one person matters to help students,” Crazy Bull said. “Many of our students are first generation or haven’t had positive experiences with authority. Then, if you have a challenge in a class, sometimes you don’t know you should talk to a teacher about it. Thus, institutions must dedicate resources to ensure that students have a person and a place where they can go to get support that is specifically intended for them.
NPC is a non-tribal Native American Serving Institution (NASNTI) with four campuses and five centers. About 28% of college students are Native Americans who come primarily from three tribal nations: Navajo, Hopi, and White Mountain Apache. More than 40% of the college’s total service area territory is on the Navajo, Hopi, and White Mountain Apache reservations.
“COVID has been nothing short of devastating to tribal nations,” said NPC President Dr. Chato Hazelbaker. “The death rates were higher. Access to health care was more difficult. Even though the state of Arizona has largely recovered economically to pre-pandemic levels, we are very, very rural and we haven’t experienced the same recovery. There is a real fear that these rural tribal areas will be left behind.
Like many NASNTIs, the NPC historically lacked Indigenous faculty and staff representation despite its large Indigenous student population. For Shandiin Deputee, a faculty member of NPC’s College and Career Readiness Program as well as an NPC graduate, that has slowly changed. She is a member of the Navajo and Crow tribes.
“I can speak to my students in our language and make visible who I am and how I identify myself,” said Deputee. “For my students, it’s a wonderful thing. It’s not something I saw when I was a student years ago. I feel that the college that hired me as a faculty member has been beneficial to my students. »
She teaches adult learners who are trying to earn their high school diploma or GED equivalent. Many of his students are also members of the tribe. Deputy is also an academic advisor for a multicultural club where many native students come together to support each other.
“The college has become more open because they’ve created groups that have made Indigenous people more visible and seen in a way that wasn’t possible when I was a student,” she added, noting that she started at NPC in 2003, then took time off, then came back to graduate around 2016. “I felt like we were often left behind. As an Aboriginal, the college has not always been geared towards Aboriginal students.
Recently, Deputee said she requires all of her distance learning students to meet with her about once a week by phone or even text.
“They have to check with me that way I can guarantee they can get through the lessons and they’re fine,” said Deputee. “I find that I have much more success when I make it a point to have contact with my students. »
Rickey Jackson, dean of arts and sciences at the NPC and the Pueblo people, added that the college has attempted outreach efforts to educate Indigenous students like Adakai about scholarships. For adult learners, Jackson pointed out that local radio has been a way to reach communities.
“We also leave flyers at Indian Health Service facilities, laundromats, wherever people congregate and congregate,” Jackson said. “The challenges students face in college are the same as those faced in the community: food insecurity is a perfect example now with inflation and people trying to pay for groceries.”
Additionally, NPC introduced a new tool this year to help track counselor-student relationships. Technology can ensure counselors ask students about food security and housing to direct them to the right help.
“We have tried to accommodate the travel needs of our students,” added Hazelbaker. “We’ve moved to a hybrid model, so students traveling these long distances may only have to do it once a week for a lab rather than three times a week for classes and a lab.”
Adakai is graduating from the NPC next month with her associate degree in medical science. This fall, she is transferring to the University of Arizona to earn her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. She shared tips with other Indigenous students.
“Don’t be afraid to step out of your hometown,” Adakai said. “Because I know that in many Native American communities, many don’t know about the possibilities of reservations and what opportunities can bring them. And my other great advice is to apply for scholarships, especially those from your school. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Rebecca Kelliher can be contacted at [email protected]