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Rural, tribal Arizona college works to support student and community needs

A shiny building at Diné College.
Wikimedia Commons
Diné College is the first tribally controlled and accredited collegiate institution in the United States.

A tribal college in Arizona has gotten some national attention this spring for "community college excellence," in this case, on the Navajo Nation.

Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, is mentioned in an Aspen Institute report for the work it is doing to boost the local economy in an area without many industry partners or employment opportunities for graduates.

Shazia Tabassu Hakim, professor of microbiology at Diné College, said the school has been able to use grant opportunities to invest in economic development and sustainable business practices. Since 2020, Hakim has led a 10-week program to train students to become water scientists in their community.

"We should be able to train the local workforce," Hakim stressed. "Because it not only helps the communities to get more out of what they have learned, but also, it is needed to continue the chain, because they are going to be the examples."

Hakim noted Diné's water testing program is one example of an initiative meeting Navajo needs, but also helping deliver students to potential jobs. She added the response from students and the community has been "overwhelmingly positive."

Hakim pointed out her program has led to greater awareness of safe water needs for people living on the reservation. And while the U.S. Department of Agriculture grant making the program possible will end this year, she said the college will find a way to continue the work.

Given the tribe's history with uranium mining, which led in the past to contaminated water sources and other health-related issues, Hakim argued it is paramount people know how to properly identify water contamination.

"It is not something that we are trying to stop at any point," Hakim emphasized. "For now, our students -- we have trained them in a way just like 'master trainers' -- so they are good enough in all these basic testing and other techniques."

The Aspen Institute report showed the college has also decided to start its own businesses, one of which is to produce wool, since sheep ranching has been a cultural and economic staple for those in the area. The school's efforts have led to improved economic outcomes for tribal workers.

Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.