Karen Francis-Begay supports Native students, programs, and faculty at UArizona

May 21, 2021

By Matt Ellsworth

Dawn Wallace

Karen Francis-Begay
Assistant Vice Provost
Native American Initiatives, University of Arizona
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Describe your work and how public policy impacts how you manage your organization.

I have the privilege of working to coordinate and support our Native student programs and Native faculty at the University of Arizona. I work closely with Enrollment Management, Student Success & Retention Innovation, and Faculty Affairs.

Native American Initiatives was created in January 2020, just before the pandemic impacted our college campuses and communities. I have spent the past year re-orientating myself to all the different units on campus that serve the needs of our Native community.

Prior to this new role, I served as the key liaison between the University and Native Nations and I spent a lot of time on the road. I now have the opportunity to focus more inwardly and give more attention to the needs of students and faculty.

Public policy has been a vital part of my career in higher education. I graduated from the Eller College of Management at UArizona in public administration and earned a master’s degree in American Indian studies, and now I am so close to completing a Ph.D. in higher education.

My academics, coupled with my work experience, has taught me to stay informed and engaged. National, state, local, and tribal communities are evolving, changing, and setting their own policies to meet the needs of their citizens. Native people have a unique status of being citizens of sovereign Nations, in addition to being citizens of a state and the nation. It is my responsibility to know how decisions at every level of government impact our students, impact their families, and the communities they come from. An example is college access and affordability. How do we make college affordable for Native students from rural Arizona? How do we eliminate barriers for students who deserve to go to college? How can colleges and universities get the support they need to continue to serve all students?

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your work or community?

I can’t answer this question without sharing my own personal loss of life from the pandemic. My father passed on from the pandemic in November 2020, just a few weeks before the nation started administering the vaccine.

The last time I saw my father was on August 6, 2020 when I drove a 26-foot box truck to the Navajo Nation to deliver a large food donation from a local donation drive I organized in Tucson. He came to meet me at the airport hangar in Window Rock that is the central command post for the Navajo Nation’s resource-supply deliveries. For both of us, this was a much needed visit, because the pandemic made any visit “home” off limits for the safety of the Nation’s citizens.

In terms of my work, many of our Native students had difficulties adjusting to online learning, food insecurity, and financial stressors. Their mental and emotional capacities were tested living and learning in tribal communities that were pandemic hotspots and dealing with fears and isolation of the “invisible monster,” which is how the Navajos refer to the COVID-19 virus.

My community, and other tribal communities, dealt with significant family loss, some losing elders who were caretakers and bearers of the culture. Many of the health-care centers were under-staffed and under-resourced. The Navajo Nation was forced to deal with an inadequate water system and used every means possible to bring clean water into homes that don’t have it.

I am only sharing a small window into what this pandemic has done to our people and to our communities. I try to focus more on how we are overcoming the challenges and the resilience of our people and Native Nations.

How has the Fellows Network been useful to you?

I honestly have not taken advantage of the Fellows Network as much as I should. I read up on the news that comes out so I can learn where some of my cohort Fellows are and what they are doing. Pre-pandemic, I tried to attend several speaking engagements so I could stay connected and keep updated on public policy issues. The Network has given me so much that I never hesitate to volunteer my time to serve on a panel, committee, or even produce a video! I do miss seeing and being among the Fellows and the staff in-person and so look forward to reconnecting and socializing once it is safe to do so.

What do you see as potential opportunities to strengthen civic health in Arizona’s tribal communities?

The opportunities are endless. I’m grateful to the Fellows who are already making an effort and an impact to help tribal communities. Two things immediately come to mind: relationships and infrastructure. Building relationships (and trust) with tribal communities is essential before anything else can happen. One has to be committed to that relationship and not be a “helicopter advocate.”

At the core of our existence as Native people is how we relate to one another and how we care for one another. For too long, tribes haven’t had the best treatment or services by state and federal agencies, for example. When I bring university leaders to a tribal community, they have to be willing to make repeated visits in order to build the trust and a relationship. Dropping-in (helicopter), leaving, and never going back doesn’t do justice when later you want to partner with a tribal community on a business plan or a grant. My advice is to make the investment of time and resources to build relationships with the tribal communities.

Second, there are serious infrastructure needs in tribal communities. Earlier I mentioned the health-care and water resource challenges on the Navajo Nation. These challenges have always existed, but it took a pandemic to elevate them to public-policy makers and then to eventually get the necessary resources to the Nation. We can’t stop the support once this pandemic is over. I’m not an expert on strengthening a community’s infrastructure, but we have to start to tackle some of these big issues as a collective and eventually we’ll start to see significant improvements in the health and well-being of tribal communities.

If you missed a Fellows’ Spotlight, you can view them on the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership website now.