When Jasmine Neosh, a third-year student at the College of Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, first started university, she was functionally homeless for two years. “I was living on floors, I had no place to go where I could actually study,” she told The Nation. “Those were really difficult times. I wouldn’t have gotten through it without support from my school.”
Neosh was eventually able to find stable housing, but the coronavirus pandemic has once more thrown her into a precarious economic situation. When Menominee’s campus closed in March, Nyash lost an opportunity to present to potential employers the research she had been working on all year. Now, she is concerned that she won’t be able to network or find summer employment, which she needs to pay for housing and other essentials.
Neosh is one of thousands of college students across the country facing enormous uncertainty and unthinkable change in the face of the coronavirus. Many students have been forced to suddenly evacuate the campus and find new housing, leave behind friends and personal belongings, and switch to online classes.
Native American students, particularly those who attend tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), have been faced with even greater challenges.
“We’ve moved to online classes, which has been really hit-or-miss, because we are very underserved in terms of Internet on the reservation,” said Neosh. “A lot of students don’t have laptops or can’t afford proper access to technology, and our professors are trying—but most of them don’t know how to use the new software either. It’s been really hard.”
According to a 2018 report by the Federal Communications Commission, about 35 percent of people living on tribal lands lack broadband Internet access, as compared to about 8 percent of the general American population. This lack of an Internet connection can make it impossible to complete the online coursework that has become a staple for college students in recent weeks.
But poor Internet service or lack of access to proper technology is only one piece of the puzzle—Native college students must also worry about other challenges at much higher rates than their peers. According to a 2020 survey conducted by the American Indian College Fund, 62 percent of Native students said they had experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days, and 69 percent reported having been housing insecure at some point in the last year. Many Native students relied on their college for food and housing in addition to education, making the switch to remote learning not only an impediment to their learning experience but also detrimental to their well-being.
“Nearly all options for food on campus have been closed or eliminated, which has made things difficult,” said Brandon Dennison, a senior at the University of Utah in Navajo Nation. “I used to eat on campus daily to utilize my dining dollars, which have now essentially become obsolete. There are also only 13 grocery stores that I am aware of in the entire Navajo nation, which brings in concerns about food and supplies.”
Dennison is not alone in these anxieties: One in four Native Americans self-identified as food-insecure in 2017, compared to one in eight Americans generally. But lack of access to food is only one of the many health concerns that people living on reservations face at the moment. Like black Americans, who are dying at record numbers from the coronavirus because of a combination of poor health care options and a bevy of preexisting health conditions rooted in poverty and environmental racism, Native Americans are also particularly vulnerable to the disease. On average, Native Americans have a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, live in intergenerational households that impede social distancing and put the elderly at risk, and lack access to proper health care. Navajo Nation in particular has already begun to see an increased strain in the region’s hospitals.
“There is very limited access to health care on the reservation,” Dennison said. “Crownpoint Health Care Facility, the hospital that is closest to our land, has 32 hospital beds. There are very limited health care professionals on hand at this facility which serves nearly 20,000 Navajo residents made up of primarily elderly citizens. I would not want to risk the possibility of not being able to be treated or taking a bed away from someone who also needs to be treated should the virus continue to spread.”
Amid all of these challenges, Native students are still determined to complete their coursework. For many students, their university is not only a resource for food, housing, and education, but also a stepping stone toward a better life for themselves and their community. Only 17 percent of Native American students continue their education after high school, compared to 60 percent of the US population, according to data from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute in 2018.
About 7 percent of all Native students who attended college in 2010 went to a tribal college or university, though the number is estimated to have increased since. Many of these students would not have the chance to attend college if it were not for the unique scholarships and funding that TCUs can offer students on the reservation, which is why it’s so important that these institutions survive the pandemic.
“We’re deeply concerned that the momentum that we’ve built to support students and support these already-fragile institutions will be lost because of this crisis,” said Cheryl Crazy Bull, the president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund. “We feel like as indigenous people living in primarily rural reservation communities, the people we serve are already traumatized. We already have limited health care access and are living in substandard housing. Covid-19 just exacerbates these conditions, and makes it difficult for institutions like TCUs to survive.”
According to Crazy Bull, most TCUs receive very little federal funding and instead rely on tuition from students to cover costs, meaning that if Native students are unable to complete their semester or return to college next year because of the coronavirus, it could put several universities in a precarious financial situation—even, in some cases, cause a closure of the school.
“Many institutions have very little reserves in respect to cash in, cash out versus operating costs, so if there are no students, then there is no cash flow,” Levi Elmo Jensen, an alumnus of Lake Superior State University, explained to The Nation. “This makes paying the bills very difficult for the university. Then comes the fact that TCUs are major employers for a lot of reservations. The lack of reserves makes it difficult to keep staff paid.”
The closure of tribal colleges and universities because of the coronavirus would be devastating to Native communities, and Native students across the country are concerned about what this crisis could mean for their universities both in the long term and for the remainder of the current semester. Neosh, for one, noted that the move to online classes deprived her of an opportunity to present medical research to the school this spring. “Since I’m in my third year, and I was planning on going to graduate school, having those opportunities to participate in research was important so that I got funding,” she said. “I’m definitely concerned that I missed out on that opportunity.”
Ultimately, it is imperative that TCUs remain open so that Native students can get their basic needs met, as well as receive their education. “I never realized how important it was to have spaces to learn or tutors who can help you and all the other things that my college provided me,” Neosh said. “Without the resources that I got from my university, I honestly do not know where I would be today.”