Maintaining a sense of belonging during a pandemic

By: Nicholet Deschine Parkhurst

Tribal Affiliation: Húŋkpapȟa & Diné

Study: PhD in Justice Studies

Invisibility, doubt and loneliness. These are feelings I have felt at one point or another while attending college. But there have also been times when I have felt confident, connected, seen, and that my desire to serve my tribes and Indian Country were understood and encouraged. Feeling a sense of belonging like I am part of a campus community has cultivated meaning for me as a Native student. Feeling connected has helped me to personally feel supported in my schoolwork and research, which has been critical to my individual fulfillment, community engagement and academic success.

Having a strong sense of belonging is one factor that may explain the persistence of Native students in higher education. In the article, “Home Away From Home: Native American Students’ Sense of Belonging During Their First Year of College,” researchers Amanda Tachine, Nolan Cabrera and Eliza Yellow Bird write that Native students’ sense of belonging includes how they feel about their “relationality among students, their families, and home communities.” From an institutional standpoint, this may mean creating and supporting programs for Native student outreach and to facilitate student connections.

Oftentimes the spaces that helped me feel like I belonged and helped foster individual meaning and fulfillment were not institutional spaces, such as retention programs or advisers, but rather student-created spaces. Having completed three degrees at ASU and currently working toward a Ph.D. in Justice Studies, I’ve had a variety of experiences over my academic career, from feeling like an outsider and that I didn’t belong to finding my space and community.

More recently, my Indigenous sister scholars and I co-founded a student organization, the Womxn’s Council of Indigenous Doctoral Scholars (WCIDS). WCIDS carves out a space for Indigenous doctoral students to foster connection, shared understanding, reciprocity and relationality. Spaces such as this help me as an Indigenous researcher to feel less like an imposter and more confident with my research.

However, the world is currently experiencing the devastation of COVID-19 and its disruption of everyday life including the college experience. ASU classes transitioned online in mid-March, college students living on campus were asked to voluntarily move away, and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued a stay-at-home order with people leaving their homes only for essentials and practicing social distancing.

Some Native Nations have taken similar or more stringent protective actions, even asking their members to temporarily reduce and restrict travel between urban areas and the reservation to decrease the risk of spreading the coronavirus. These protective actions, while necessary, may further isolate or impact student connections to their family, culture, homelands, schools and student groups, when they may need it most.

In ordinary circumstances, a college student’s sense of belonging might be cultivated through on-campus student involvement. The current climate of social distancing and self-isolation raises questions about how Native students and their student organizations are using online spaces to continue fostering a sense of belonging when people are separated from each other and their campuses. While these are trying and uncertain times, a sense of belonging and maintaining connection to others can help validate experiences, provide mutual support and continue fostering meaning and fulfillment.

Mario Tsosie


Master of Social Work Candidate

President, American Indian Social Work Student Association

American Indian Social Work Student Association (AISWSA) is an organization located on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix Campus to assist in increasing student involvement, to enhance communication and cooperation among student peers and to promote activities to enhance the academic, social and cultural growth of students and members of the community.

As we continue to work through the current pandemic, AISWSA and advisors have created an online space for students to meet. Rather than focusing on schoolwork and assignments, the focus is on building community strength by creating a support system where students can meet other students or community members to engage, learn and promote wellness.

As an ASU Native student in the Master of Social Work program, I find it very important to have meaningful spaces to promote cultural awareness, cultural healing and like-minded individuals who feel the need to reconnect with their culture. Having this space allows our students the ability to be with other Native and Indigenous people to promote culture, while also creating a cultural awareness platform for all students to learn more about working with Indigenous populations.

As a Native American student association, we found that AISWSA is a great way to promote cultural competencies in the field of social work by promoting events to engage in students interested in learning more about our cultures. Through this platform, we were able to create engaging events throughout the year to assist students in learning more about Native and Indigenous practices in the social work field, such as providing no-cost training in SafeTalk and ASIST Training.

I would like to acknowledge the officers of AISWSA for all of their amazing hard work and commitment to building a community of culture at Arizona State University. Without the commitment of this amazing team, the community that has been built would not be as strong as it currently presents itself. Thank you AISWSA! |

Samantha Lupnacca

Choctaw Nation

Medical Studies major and Spanish minor

President, IndiGenius

IndiGenius is located on the ASU West Campus and is focused on educating about and uplifting the Native American community. Our goal is to focus on community involvement through volunteering and bringing awareness to current issues affecting Indigenous people.

As an ASU Native student, the creation of meaningful spaces is important for learning and expression. I can think of the Labriola National American Indian Data Center at West Campus who has created this space for our students. Meaningful spaces are also important for creating a sense of home and to overcome challenges that are difficult to deal with alone. At West Campus, American Indian Student Support Services (AISSS) has become that safe place for all of our students, and we would not have been as successful without it.

The event we took the most pride in for cultivating a conversation about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls during Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October. Students and officers posted five posters of our missing women every day throughout the month, and the display stirred up conversations on our campus. Very few people we talked to outside the Native American community were aware of the growing number of women who have been hurt and taken away from us.

Before the pandemic, we were involved in the planning of Indigenous Culture Week this semester as well as three large events on top of general meetings in collaboration with the Labriola to share our culture with all students. With the pandemic, we decided as a club that our hands-on events would not be socially responsible to still hold in person. Our officers decided to cancel our events and focus on supporting the integration of ICW online as well as encouraging students to volunteer with Native Connections and DreamCatcher’s Kindness and Compassion Initiative. Their goal is to combat the social isolation within the senior population during this pandemic in place of granting Dreams in person.

We hope that students stay safe while focusing on the health of themselves, their families and their responsibilities as students! |

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Turning Points Magazine is the first ever Native college magazine written by Native students for Native students @asu