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First lady hears higher ed issues among others

First lady hears higher ed issues among others


Navajo Technical University regent Gloria Grant said it was like “winning the lottery” when she was asked to sit in on a roundtable of women who were meeting with first lady Dr. Jill Biden.

When Biden arrived last Thursday to the Peterson Zah Museum and Library to begin her two-day tour, she was met by President Jonathan Nez, his wife Phefelia Nez, and Vice President Myron Lizer and his wife Dottie Lizer.

Then Biden was led to the roundtable of “women warriors.”

Grant and the other women, who were educators, business owners, organizers and advocates, said they were given time to discuss whatever it was they thought was important that Biden had to hear. For Grant it was higher education on Navajo.

The talking points Grant mentioned, after consulting with NTU’s President Elmer Guy, were the mental health of students during and after the pandemic.

Grant explained that neither NTU nor Diné College was ready for the mental toll the pandemic would take on its students.

“It has increased the need for students (suffering from) depression and (thinking about) suicide,” said Grant. “We can’t even talk about students’ education if we don’t get in there so they can get help. I asked Dr. Biden to please put that on the landscape of some of the things we need.”

Buildings on the Navajo Nation are always an issue, and NTU is no exception.

Grant said she mentioned this to Biden, noting that remote NTU sites throughout Navajo are poorly ventilated, which makes them ill-equipped to address the concerns of COVID-19 should students return to the classrooms.
“Encouraging students back too soon could be risky,” said Grant. “Social distancing is something we will have to work on with students. It’s a major issue because our buildings are not designed for social distancing.”

Biden, who is a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College, is no stranger to NTU. In 2013 she gave NTU’s commencement speech.

Navajo Times | Sharon Chischilly
First lady Jill Biden stands with a few essential workers during her visit last Friday afternoon at Tséhootsooí Medical Center in Fort Defiance.

Women who participated in the roundtable included: Navajo Nation Board of Education President Priscilla Manuelito, Tséhootsooí Medical Center respiratory therapist and cancer survivor Sarah Dahozy, Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, artisan and wellness advocate Gwendolyn Sandra McCray, Arviso Construction project manager Brianne Arviso, First Things First Navajo Regional Director Memarie Tsosie, and Navajo United Way Executive Director Laura Mike.

News media were told to leave before the roundtable began. After the discussion at the museum, Biden headed to Veterans Park and Memorial where she addressed delegates and division and department directors.

“I’ve had a great visit here so far and I just met with a group of women who I now call my sister warriors,” she said to the crowd on a windy evening. “And so it was so nice to meet with all of you. And I really appreciate your spending time with me.

“Surrounded by the four sacred mountains,” she said. “I’m privileged and I’m proud to be here with the Diné people in Window Rock, your Nation’s capital. And I’m especially honored to join you on a day that we celebrate, and we recommit to protecting Mother Earth.”

In 2019, Biden visited Tuba City to see the opening of the first caner treatment center in Indian Country. Last year, Phefelia Nez had joined Biden for a Native talking circle, where she heard from tribal leaders about issues in Indian Country.

“I promised that, as president, Joe in a Biden-Harris administration would stand with Indian Country and all of you,” said Biden. “And today as your first lady in our first 100 days, I am here to let you know that we are keeping that promise. We stand with you, the Navajo Nation.”

On her second day of the tour, Biden toured the Bureau of Indian Education-run school Hunters Point Board School.

President Joe Biden signed a $1.9 trillion relief package in March that includes $20 billion for federally recognized tribes to help mitigate the impacts of the coronavirus.

Some $850 million is earmarked for the BIE, which plans to allocate $85 million to be managed by BIE school operations for investments such as the buildout of a Learning Management System and ventilation improvement projects; $535.5 million will be allocated to K-12 schools based on the weighted student unit formula; and $229.5 million will be allocated to tribal colleges and universities based on student count.

Of this amount, the 68 BIE K-12 schools on the Navajo Nation will receive approximately $171 million combined, Diné College will receive $16.8 million, and Navajo Technical University will receive $16.9 million.

During this visit, Hunters Point Boarding School Principal Julia Donald, Department of Diné Education Acting Superintendent Dr. Patricia Gonnie, and Navajo Nation Board of Education Vice President Spencer Willie, Nez and his wife welcomed Biden.

“As mothers, we hold all children very close to our heart,” said Phefelia Nez. “By listening to the personal experiences of the students today and having that personal dialogue with them, I strongly believe that first lady Biden inspired them to achieve more through higher education and beyond.

“Mental health is a great concern for everyone during this pandemic and having an opportunity for our young people to converse with the first lady of the United States, who is also a mother and a schoolteacher, shows her commitment to our students and educators,” she said.

Chinle High School senior Namioka Rain Honie, Kin Dah Lichi’i O?ta 6th-grader Rakal Nez, Navajo Preparatory School senior Cade Allison and 9th-grader Aurelius Yazzie, and Wingate High School senior Jewels Leslie also were in attendance. They spoke on the challenges they faced during the pandemic.

The students spoke about the challenges of adjusting to virtual learning when schools stopped in-person instruction at the start of the pandemic, which included very limited broadband access and the emotional toll of having to suddenly isolate from friends and relatives.

Navajo Nation Council’s Naabik’iyat’i Committee failed to rescind a resolution that shut down schools due to the pandemic. The attempt was tabled and will be brought back before summer session.

In the meantime, Nez said some schools are holding in-person learning when they should only be doing virtual learning. He has warned these schools they will be held accountable if there is an outbreak of COVID-19.

Distance learning has been an issue even for Biden and her students. During the Hunters Point Boarding School visit, she said she was texting her own students about their final exams and said the semester “has been hard.”

“I love being here and listening to you,” said Biden to the group. “We are hoping to go back to school in the fall. I said to my students, ‘How are you making out?’ and they say, ‘We are hanging on. We are hoping we are back on campus.’”

Grant said both NTU and Diné College have seen a dip in enrollment, but they are trying to help students in any way they can, such as giving $25 gas cards to 142 students, and $638,000 in direct student payments to help students with computers, transportation and food.

NTU also provides18 Wi-Fi hotspots, among other assitance.

“We want a place at the national table,” said Grant. “To give ideas and get ideas, to dialogue and talk, that’s what we want.”

About The Author

Arlyssa Becenti

Arlyssa Becenti reports on Navajo Nation Council and Office of the President and Vice President. Her clans are Nát'oh dine'é Táchii'nii, Bit'ahnii, Kin łichii'nii, Kiyaa'áanii. She’s originally from Fort Defiance and has a degree in English Literature from Arizona State University. Before working for the Navajo Times she was a reporter for the Gallup Independent. She can be reached at abecenti@navajotimes.com. Follow her on Twitter at @abecenti


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