Navajo President Russell Begaye, left, and Vice President Jonathan Nez celebrate after hanging a framed Navajo flag on the wall of the new Lobo Rainforest residence hall at the University of New Mexico.
Published January 14, 2018
ALBUQUERQUE – The Navajo Nation and the University of New Mexico officially announced a partnership Friday to provide a unique housing experience for 118 Navajo students at Lobo Rainforest, UNM’s newest residence hall.
The agreement, finalized Jan. 3, grants occupancy rights of the entire fifth and sixth floors of the Lobo Rainforest building to the Navajo Nation through July 31, 2021. The innovative residence hall promises to create a Navajo community at UNM while offering students access to the latest technological and entrepreneurial opportunities.
“Lobo Rainforest is a place to learn, a place to live,” Navajo President Russell Begaye said during a ceremony Friday at the residence hall. “It is the soil to nourish the ideas of our students that will eventually turn the Navajo Nation into a place of invention, innovation and technology.”
Located in the innovation district of downtown Albuquerque, the Lobo Rainforest was designed to nurture students’ entrepreneurial spirits. The first floor of the building includes office space for Air Force Research Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, STC.UNM, Cecchi Venture Lab, UNM Innovation Academy and Nusenda Credit Union. With proximity to innovative organizations, the location will operate as a gateway for students to pursue internships and secure jobs after college.
“This is truly a great day for the Navajo Nation because we need a place where our students can relax, study and collaborate with likeminded individuals with the same objectives and goals,” President Begaye said.
The agreement, which comes with an initial $1.45 million price tag, represents a united front between the Navajo Nation’s executive and legislative branches. The Navajo Nation Council in December unanimously approved a bill allocating the necessary funds and signaling a desire to support students both culturally and academically.
“We wanted to mimic what a Navajo student would find in their own community, but in the university setting,” said Council Delegate Amber Crotty, who sponsored the legislation. “There’s a great sense of pride knowing that the Navajo Nation is invested in you. It’s critical that students know we’re making this investment on their behalf, that the Navajo Nation is behind them.”
Karis Begaye, legal counsel to the Office of the President and Vice President, initiated the negotiations with UNM and completed a significant amount of the groundwork to secure Lobo Rainforest for the Navajo Nation.
“We were getting a lot of information from our students that student housing was really a problem,” she said. “I heard a lot of stories of students sleeping on couches, having no place to study, and even a person setting up a shack during finals week. We wanted to alleviate that burden off our students.”
Also representing the Navajo Nation at the ceremony Friday were Vice President Jonathan Nez and Council Delegate Steven Begay. Officials gathered after the ceremony to tour the residence halls and meet with students.
The two-bedroom, two-bathroom, apartment-style units are furnished with a dishwasher, washing machine and dryer. UNM will provide all utilities, internet service and routine maintenance. The Navajo Nation will determine eligibility for Navajo students who wish to live in the Rainforest Building. Eligible students will pay discounted rent.
For 26-year-old Janalee Livingston and her three sisters, one of the biggest hurdles to a higher education was paying for housing.
“This is going to be so helpful,” she said. “Coming here is akin to coming home. You’re going to be side by side with people who are trying to better themselves, better their education, better their quality of living to bring that back home.”
The Rainforest purchase comes at the dawn of the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of 1868, a document signed by the federal government and Navajo leaders that ended the exile of the Navajo people, Vice President Jonathan Nez said. Following the treaty signing, the Navajo were allowed to return to their ancestral homeland.
“The President and myself, we’re looking at this as an investment for the next 150 years,” Vice President Nez said of the housing agreement. “With any investment, we want a return, which is for our students to help make a better community and nation.”
The Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President hears stories of Navajo students sleeping in their cars, on couches and in overcrowded rooms in order to receive their education. It holds that one of the reasons for a high dropout rate among Native American students is a lack of financial support.
“With student housing owned by the Navajo Nation, we can alleviate some of this burden off our students and support them in reaching their full potential,” President Begaye said. “We need our students to return to the Navajo Nation and share their knowledge and education with the tribe. The smarter we are as individuals, the further we will go collectively in the future.”
The Rainforest project is the first of many housing agreements the Navajo Nation hopes to solidify in the coming months. It is negotiating with other area colleges and universities to reach similar agreements, and it is working on additional housing in Albuquerque to build a “Navajo village” near UNM.
Students can move into the Lobo Rainforest residence hall immediately upon approval. To apply for housing, visit https://rainforest.unm.edu/