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For One Native Student At Fort Lewis College, Lacrosse And Family Were A Lifeline As The Pandemic Disrupted Classes

After the pandemic sabotaged her senior year of high school lacrosse, Nina Polk was determined not to miss another season.

Although her mom was hesitant to let her go away to college, the family piled into their car in August 2020 to make the 20-plus hour drive from their home in Shakopee, Minnesota, to Durango, Colorado, where Polk had been recruited to play women’s lacrosse at Fort Lewis College.

The liberal arts college, a former Native American boarding school that today offers free tuition to Native American students, was Polk’s dream school. In addition to the tuition waiver, it had everything she was looking for: a division II sports program, a fine arts major and gorgeous natural surroundings.

Simply by getting to college, Polk, now 19, stood out from many of her peers. Only around a quarter of 18- to 24-year-old American Indian and Alaska Native people were enrolled in college in 2019 according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Native American students are also more likely to drop out of college during or after their freshman year and more likely to transfer to a different institution.

Then the pandemic hit, throwing up additional obstacles on the high school-to-college path. Last fall, the share of Native American students enrolled in college for the first time plummeted by almost a quarter, more than for any other racial or ethnic group, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.