LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
When a Navajo baby is born it's custom to bury the umbilical cord in the ground. The Navajo believe the ritual ties the child to the land forever. But a new generation are defying this belief as more young people leave the Navajo Nation to attend college or find work. Elders encourage their return, but often, that transition back home is rough. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports from Flagstaff.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Tommy Rock has had three graduations - high school, college and graduate school. And no one from his family was there - no one to cheer for him, no one to take his picture. And when he came home to Monument Valley...
TOMMY ROCK: I don't get no congratulations or nothing. It was like, oh, you think you're better than us? I was like, wow. OK.
MORALES: Almost half the Navajo Nation is unemployed. After high school, there are few opportunities. After Rock graduated from high school, he did what everyone else did in Monument Valley. He worked in the tourism industry. But he had his sights set on college.
ROCK: One day, I just grabbed my bag, started walking, hitchhike out to the junction and stuck out my thumb. And there's a person that was going back to Prescott.
MORALES: That's where he enrolled as a freshman at Yavapai College. The first semester was hard. The cost of books, housing and food quickly ate up the money he had saved. And no one back home was willing to help him out. So he lived on ramen noodles and spam.
ROCK: I used to way, like, 180, 185 or so. And by the end of semester, my first semester, I dropped down to, like, 140, 135.
MORALES: People like Tommy Rock are part of the Navajo brain drain, says Navajo President Russell Begaye. He himself is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles. Begaye made a plea in his inaugural address to the thousands of Navajo who have seen their children and grandchildren leave the reservation for school and then head to Phoenix, Los Angeles or Albuquerque to work.
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RUSSELL BEGAYE: And their brains and their skills and expertise are being utilized to help grow those towns and cities. It is time we bring them back.
MORALES: Back to the Navajo Nation to make a difference here. Begaye believes making that difference starts at home. Half of Native Americans say college was never part of the conversation growing up. That's a finding of a poll by NPR, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Not talking about college leads to few college graduates. One in 10 Native Americans have their bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau - far fewer than the general population. Tommy Rock's Uncle Gary Holiday teases him about becoming a doctor.
GARY HOLIDAY: Oh, yeah. You have to remind me. Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting.
NATHAN HOLIDAY: It'll always be Tommy...
MORALES: Holiday is the one relative who supports Rock, and he wishes he could've been at his college graduation.
G. HOLIDAY: I value education.
MORALES: Holiday went to Salt Lake City to get his bachelor's and master's degrees in social work.
G. HOLIDAY: I was the first one in my family to finish high school. And my mother never spent a day in school.
MORALES: Like so many Native Americans, Rock and his uncle had to navigate the world of higher education without much help from family. And Rock says there's an idea in Navajo that speaks to his situation.
ROCK: (Speaking Navajo). It means, like, no one's going to do it for you. You have to do it for yourself.
MORALES: And that he did. In December, Rock earned his Ph.D. in environmental science from Northern Arizona University. And now he's devoting himself to the Navajo Nation, where he's working to clean up uranium contamination. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.
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