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Internet and Technology Access During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Chronological Account and Approach to Helping Native American Students in the Navajo Northern Agency

Indigenous Peoples
July 28, 2020 Byron Tsabetsaye (Diné) San Juan Community College

I write this blog post acknowledging many things: 1. I am currently in the Northern Agency of the Navajo
Nation, my place of residence and work are in Tóta' (Farmington, New Mexico), a border town to the
Navajo Nation. Tóta' is situated within Dinétah, the ancestral and traditional homelands of my people. 2.
I recognize the effects of COVID-19 on our Native communities, particularly the deeply-impacted Navajo
Nation. I realize the circumstantial challenges and priorities that supersede internet and technology
access. 3. I understand that the political climate right now is dense for people of color, especially for our
Black and Black Indigenous relatives. Not to mention the intentional and long-overdue removal of
statues and symbolic figures that represent violence toward Native peoples. By identifying the social
importance of these conditions within our communities, as they have figured strongly in my role as a
student affairs administrator, it is my hope that you will glean or take something good away from the
experiences shared here.

Currently, I serve as the director of a Native American student support center at a Native American
Serving Non-Tribal Institution. Our college maintains above 30% enrollment of Native American and
Indigenous students every year. My work aims to promote Native American and Indigenous student
success in higher education. Our center provides a nurturing community for the students we serve, we
are intentional about cultural sustenance and centering Indigenous identity in college. I am incredibly
fortunate to work at an institution with NASNTI designation as it holds significant promise for college
success, specifically for our surrounding Native communities.

On March 12, 2020, I formulated a Google spreadsheet that attempted to crowdsource information to
help our Native American students locate internet access points and technology in their respective
communities. I went about this unsystematically, acting mostly on incredibly short timeframes and
pressures. Many institutions were closing their doors and transitioning to an online status in response to
the Coronavirus outbreak. Many of our Native students were returning to their home communities
where they faced formidable barriers as they completed their coursework. The spreadsheet helped
navigate those barriers, some. It gained good traction and served its purpose for a good week or two.
Many of our tribal education departments and organizations were logging information and sharing it
widely in their communities, in hopes to help their students. At the time, the immediate priority was to
not weaken our support of our students. The efforts to do this, however, dramatically changed, as things
progressed the way they did during the outbreak.

In late March, many institutions were making the decision to remain in online status through the end of
the semester. Native professionals who worked in support/student services began to feel the strain of
our Native students and the complications of transitioning to online. This is when I returned to the
drawing board and reformulated ways to help our students get connected. I retired the spreadsheet and
formulated a guide that surveyed access in Northern Navajo communities. What I learned about
internet access was the incredibly complex and I became aware of service territories that posed many
limitations. Students had varying degrees of access. Some had little or no options, depending on the remoteness of their community. I, then, learned that several internet providers had pre-existing or
newly-created programs and opportunities for college students and low-income families. Discounted
plans and special rates were being created, in an effort to help out students. Much like the spreadsheet,
the guide served its purpose and worked for a fixed a mount of time.

In April, I started to gravitate toward more-promising projects that would pose long-term opportunities
around internet and technology access. At my institution, we had a pre-existing process for Wi-Fi
hotspots to help our students with access. This worked but with several complications and a long wait
list, as demand was extraordinarily high. I agreed to a project that would test these hotspots in the
communities where our students lived. The process was frustrating but it clearly indicated what our
students were experiencing. The frustration grew from the time constraints and unstable connections in
many of these testing locations. The hotpots only worked in the central parts of Rez towns which meant
that our students likely had to remain mobile to hold a connection. As well, the hotspots relied on cell
towers so if the signal was weak, the connection would also be weak. Many of our students could not
hold a connection that would support videoconferencing or large downloads. This was paramount
considering the expectations held by instructors, especially those unfamiliar with access in Native
communities. Students at Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCU) and Native American Serving Non-Tribal
Institutions (NASNTI) had better support mechanisms compared to students at a Predominantly White
Institution (PWI) and other larger universities. It’s important to remember and consider the
representation of our Native American and Indigenous students their unique needs experienced by
varying types of institutions.

What we can take away from these experiences are the realities we face in higher education during a
pandemic. It is important to remember the unique student experiences that existed pre-pandemic and
align it with present-day experiences, informed and shaped by the pandemic. Whether your institution
has a 0-1% Native American/Indigenous student population or maintains enrollment above that margin,
we hold a collective commitment to promoting student success, especially those underserved. This work
is unfinished and many things remain uncertain. I pose these questions for you to deliberate as you
commit to helping our students better: 1. Center cultural identity and Native/Indigenous relationality to
land and home. Understand that while these places are rich spaces for cultural learning, they are not
always conducive to Eurocentric learning methods. In other words, internet access is a complication and
not always a tool for learning in our Native communities. 2. Ask yourself what you know about shared
responsibilities and the role you play to help our students be successful in college. Native/Indigenous
student success does not rest, alone, on Native staff and faculty in higher education. 3. Reflect on your
experiences during the pandemic, increase your sensitivities for students and seriously consider your
positionality. 4. Remember cultural principles and indigenous knowledge systems that inspire your work.

It is my hope that our students are afforded opportunities for college success.


Read Time Magazine article on this topic and interview with Byron Tsabetsaye