Tribal colleges' major shift in a COVD-19 world

Indian Country Today

Indian Country Today talks with Carrie Billy, Navajo, the president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium

As colleges and universities across the country struggle to figure out how to bring back students, tribal colleges are doing the same thing. The global COVID-19 pandemic is causing many to rethink how the upcoming fall semester will look for students.

Indian Country Today talks with Carrie Billy, Navajo, the president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, also known as AIHEC, to discuss the effects of the pandemic and the changes it's had and could continue to have on Indian education. 

Here are comments from Carrie Billy in today's newscast:

"Even before the pandemic, tribal colleges faced challenges that other institutions of higher education haven't faced, which made the pandemic even worse upon tribal colleges. For example, tribal colleges have had the slowest internet access of any institutions of higher education in the country on average, the most expensive internet of any institutions of higher education and the longest refresh rate for IT infrastructure and equipment than any other institutions."

Utilizing CARES Act funding

"We're buying miles and miles of plexiglass, for example, making their cafeterias safe or physically distancing while students are having meals, the classrooms, making more space in the classrooms, spreading out classes, spreading out students. The dorms, a number of our colleges have dorms. So creating safe space in dorms is also a challenge. So a lot of the funding that tribal colleges received is going to those kinds of things. And we're hoping there's enough left over to help with the internet."

"They're also using it to buy equipment for students. Most of our students didn't have laptops, they were checking them out and there was only a limited number. [We're] trying to make sure students have laptops so they can eventually connect...Some colleges were even buying track phones for students to connect. So not the greatest technology there but anything to help students learn. And I think that's the positive thing is we're finding that our students are adapting, you know we're resilient. Our students are learning in this new environment."

Student struggles and adapting

"We have heard a number of students talking about the kind of struggles we knew that a number of our students had...hunger issues, family issues, just like all of our families who are Native families living with multiple generations. 

Not having access for their kids. So we have students at our tribal colleges who are going to school and then also trying to educate their little kids who were at home and then taking care of their parents, not knowing when to get food, how to get food. So that's just a kind of typical story for our students.They're trudging through, they're coming to the college campuses, sitting in the parking lots, are going to the mobile hotspots and continuing to learn."

"We've actually been surprised at how well students are adapting. So there are sad stories but there's a lot of really positive stories about the things that students are doing and how they're trying to help their communities, not just themselves and their families."

"I don't know how students, parents are doing it now who have young kids and they're working at home trying to get their work done at home, trying to educate their children and then doing online classes. It is unbelievable."

Equity in funding

"Our number one priority now is equity in funding. There is still, if you look at the CARES Act $3 trillion the largest most expensive bill ever passed by Congress, the amount of funding that's going to Indian country is dismal not even 1%"

If you look at the funding for tribal colleges compared to other institutions of higher education because our schools are small because a lot of our students are part-time or, like most community colleges, other factors we received less funding under the funding that went to institutions of higher education."

"There's a huge inequity...I think Congress as much progress as we're making over the past month or so, we still have a long way to go."

"Tribal colleges are really fortunate, we have great partnerships with other minority-serving institutions, other institutions, serving people of color, or with the historically black colleges. Hispanic serving institutions and other institutions. They're really great advocates. So a lot of the advocacy we're doing now is partnering with those institutions to influence Congress."

Allies in the government

"Our allies are the typical allies on the Hill ... Senator Tester, the Senator from New Mexico, the Indian country senators. Congressmen Cole in the house has always been a strong supporter of tribal colleges. Our Congressman Bobby Scott also. We have great advocates. We just don't have enough advocates."

"I loved working on the Hill and then working for President Clinton, who really did more for American Indians and for tribal colleges for Native higher education and education than any president, established a lot of new programs. And, we haven't made any, we've continued to fund many of those programs but new programs haven't been established since Bill Clinton. I think he doesn't get a lot of credit for all that he did."
"One of the good things I think about my experience is that, when I worked on the Hill, I had never worked for federal agencies before. So I didn't really know what working for the federal government meant. Working for the government and actually seeing it at work, you get a much better understanding of the bureaucracy, the delays, the people, good people and people who are just, you know, spending time or wielding power."

"It gave me a really great perspective to be able to work with both people on the Hill and in the administration, which is what we do at AIHEC a lot. 

Celebrating graduations

"We're celebrating the graduations right now [and for] tribal colleges we're right in the middle, probably about halfway through or a little more through graduation season for the tribal colleges. And it's amazing to hear the stories of students who are persevering and who are excited to be ready to go to work now to transition out of a tribal college or move on to a four-year tribal college or a university...They really are the heroes. I think the students and people who are adapting are the heroes, they're among the heroes of this pandemic."

"Navajo Technical University ... I thought they did something that was really nice because almost all the universities and colleges are doing virtual graduations. Navajo Tech did a thing where they did their virtual graduation but they also had on their Facebook page and website, they had a story for every tribal college, every student who was graduating had a day where they had a quote or a story from them and their picture, their images, and it was up for a day."

Transitions to online offerings during COVID

"In a way, at the beginning of this pandemic, it was a little easier because you just had to make a decision, "We're going to go online and instantly" and within two weeks, everything was online or as much as possible online. Now we have summer schools, some tribal colleges are starting or in the middle of summer school, which is almost all online. But then also planning to be open or partially open in the Fall... but then planning for shutdowns, which would cause them to go completely online...We're actually training right now. Faculty are going through a six-week online course for virtual learning, online learning, and distance education. So they'll be better prepared for the fall. So it actually could be pretty exciting."

"We have a number of students doing online, internet, IT, computer science, those kinds of classes, advanced manufacturing, almost anything you can put online and the classes that you can't, the career and technical classes, colleges are spacing them out, having smaller students in each classroom. We actually think that this opportunity where our classes are going to be online actually opens up a whole world of possibility for Native students throughout Indian Country, not just in a community that has a tribal college because a Navajo living in Chicago or New York or wherever can enroll in classes at Dine College or Navajo Tech or Haskell."

"It really is opening up higher education for American Indians and Alaska Natives. So that's exciting."

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Also in the newscast, Carina Dominguez has the latest numbers of positive COVID-19 tests in Indian Country.

Today, Vincent Schilling hosted the newscast

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