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GUEST COLUMN: Native students, instructors especially vulnerable to campus reopening

While the rest of the Southwest opened up its doors and gathered for July 4 festivities and birthdays, those in the Navajo Nation and in pueblo communities remained at home.

A fraction of those who remained at home are Native American college students, including some who are students at the University of New Mexico and some who will make their college debut this fall.

When I learned that UNM was taking a hybrid approach to classes for the upcoming semester, my first thought was about those Native students and exactly how this approach would likely affect them.

As a Native student and a Native core writing instructor in the English department, I found the decision disconcerting.

When the pandemic hit, like most Navajo students, I returned home to the motherland that quickly became a hotspot. I returned to a way of life I did not recognize; one that forced me to break from my culture and tradition, and one that would challenge my ability to learn and teach from afar with less than adequate internet service.

From spring break in early March to the end of the semester in May, I commuted back and forth from Albuquerque to Fruitland, New Mexico and beyond to the Arizona side of the Navajo reservation where some of my family lives. It was impossible for me to pick a place and stay — in Albuquerque I had good internet access, but I was not able to check in on my family. Back home I was comforted knowing I could look in on my family but struggled to deliver my Composition II classes via Zoom and while finishing my own schoolwork.

As an instructor, I had a number of Navajo and pueblo students in my classes during the spring, as well as students who had unique living situations. Some of my Navajo students struggled to get safe internet access when UNM turned to remote learning. Though the Navajo Nation provided some wi-fi hotspots for student use, some did not have transportation to get there and when they did it was outside of operating hours. Other students did not have laptops, and many used their phones to complete assignments.

Navajo students sometimes have unique responsibilities. Some return home to haul wood for their families, others partake in ceremonies that could last days and some return home to care for vulnerable family members — typically elders.

So, when I think about the hybrid approach UNM recently announced, I wonder how this will affect some of the University’s often vulnerable Indigenous students. In an effort to get a better picture of the struggles Native students and underrepresented students might face, I thought about the struggles I would face.

I am the lone caregiver for my aging parents. I am a first-generation college student, and my parents lack the skills to navigate today’s technologies. During the school year, I return home every two weeks to make sure they have everything they need — pay their online bills, interpret important documents and take care of any manual labor around the house.

With the pandemic, my responsibilities have amplified.

I return home to do the grocery shopping, so their exposure is limited; I do the same for my uncle and great aunt; I break down new information about the pandemic and the virus so my Navajo-speaking parents understand what is happening in the world; I shop for cleaning and disinfectant supplies in Albuquerque a few times a week because supplies are limited back home.

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If I have to teach students in-person — and increase my risk of exposure — I won’t be able to return home to do these things for my family. I imagine many other students, especially Native students, having to do the same things.

I have read and heard little about the support UNM has shown for Native students and students with unique situations with this new hybrid approach. Even shortly after the pandemic hit Native communities in New Mexico, I did not see the University stepping up to help Native students who occupy many spaces on campus, especially considering Native students are the third-largest demographic group of students enrolled at the University, according to UNM’s fall 2019 official enrollment report. Yet, I saw how universities in neighboring states created relief efforts for the Navajo Nation and local tribes.

I have read articles about students having coronavirus parties, betting on who gets the virus first, and fraternity rush parties that have left dozens of college students infected with the virus. And before UNM let out for spring break and turned to remote learning, students in my own classes spoke with resistance against state stay-at-home orders and vowed to travel and vacation as they please. Though this is not representative of all students everywhere, it shows that some students care little about themselves and others, yet people in my position are left to risk our health, our lives, and for me, that of my family, by teaching in-person.

As Native students and instructors, we are left to have to choose between the health of our families, our own well-being and getting a college education.

For weeks, the Navajo Nation was on a strict curfew in an effort to slow the number of positive cases and deaths due to COVID-19. The curfew was lifted for two weekends but was recently reinstated due to rising numbers of positive cases nationally and in our backyard in Arizona.

How can UNM expect Native students who are losing mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, siblings and their people at a high rate to the virus to choose between their health and their education? As UNM continues to make adjustments, how are Native students being considered in the return to campus? What efforts are being made to consider Native students and all underrepresented students and instructors?

It has been four months since the virus hit home, and the pandemic has left no sign of its plans for departure. While many in New Mexico and the world move forward and onward, some of us are left to ponder what is being done to protect the Native and vulnerable part of the pack.

Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi is a doctoral student and instructor in the department of English Language and Literature at UNM.


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