Family and community service mean everything to Lawrence Alfred Jr.
He mentors his nephews, nieces and cousins. He’s worked as a tutor at a Navajo college for about 18 years.
He gladly waited to earn a bachelor’s degree until his two younger sisters had graduated and moved into their careers as a nurse and teacher. “I took care of my family,” explains the 44-year-old who finished work last December toward an online bachelor’s degree in mathematics through IU East. “I was the oldest … I have to take care of anyone who needs help.”
That’s the traditional way: Navajo life is a community life, a sacrificing life. It’s quiet and sometimes heroic. Alfred’s paternal grandfather was a World War II hero and his father served during the Vietnam War.
“The culture is really different here. You know your grandparents; you know their children and their cousins,” Alfred said.
Alfred lives with his parents in a house in Tuba City, Arizona, that he plans to own for the rest of his life. He wants it that way, to be there for everybody when he’s needed.
Right now, he’s needed to help his people shelter in place and survive the ravages of COVID-19 that already has felled some people that are close to him. “It has hit hard here in the Navajo Nation Community,” Alfred says.
So hard, that he’s “lost 25 close people.”
So hard that everyone must wear a mask. Everyone is under curfew during the night hours. There are no exceptions.
He lives close to a hospital and has seen helicopters evacuating six to seven people on some days. “One day there were five that came in one after another,” he says.
Thankfully, the rate has slowed significantly this week.
The reservation has been devastated financially. Businesses and schools are shut down and unemployment has surged. Normal connections of reservation commerce have dried up. Lawrence earns income by buying handmade pieces from elders and turning them into beautiful jewelry that he sells in roadside bazaars near the Grand Canyon.
Nobody is hiring, either. After the pandemic passes, he will continue pursuing a job somewhere nearby that will put his new math degree from IU East to good use.
“I am looking for something more in computer science or optics,” he says. “With math degrees, you can get into most anything.”
Alfred earned his associate’s degree in math by attending a college in Arizona, but couldn’t immediately afford to pursue a four-year degree. “I had to pay off loans,” he explains.
Then, he aimed to earn scholarships and find the lowest-cost and best-rated online math program that he could find.
He did extensive research before deciding on IU East. One reason was that it was ranked No. 1 for online math programs. “They matched up to what I was already taking,” Alfred says. “It was cheaper. It looked more professional, more of what I could get hired in.”
He simply loves math and science. It comes easy to him. “I could do calculus all day. I am really into science, the cause and effect of things,” he says. “It causes me to think more objectively than emotionally.”
He finished everything for the math degree between August 2018 and December 2019 with online classes. He used computers at home and at Dine’ College (which has closed because of the pandemic).”
Alfred says much of the class communications was done via email, but he credits assistant professor Ramesh Karki for making the online journey a better one. “He was a big help. I could talk to him through Zoom,” Alfred says. “Hearing a voice makes it more personable.”
Markus Pomper, chair of the mathematics department, said he was impressed by Alfred’s involvement in his senior seminar. “He was very engaged in the discussion forum throughout the class and did very well overall.”
Alfred says the connection remains with IU East. One way is that he often gets feelers about job possibilities. “Companies out there are sending me openings,” he says.
But, he wants to stay in the Southwest — where his family’s roots and history run deep.
His grandfather Johnny Alfred was a member of the famed Code Talkers that were used to communicate secretly during battles on islands in the Pacific Ocean during World War II.
“Johnny was a true warrior,” said Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr., who gave the eulogy at the memorial services for him in 2011 (as reported in the Navajo Times).
“If there was a threat to his people he rose to defend his people,” MacDonald said.
“He was a good man,” said Lawrence Alfred, Johnny’s son and the father of Lawrence Alfred Jr. “He was strict and was very disciplined. He loved his family and he never wanted any kind of recognition.”
The new IU East graduate says his father didn’t know Johnny Alfred was a code talker until he was in high school. “It was a secret code. None of the family knew,” Lawrence Jr. explains. “He was a quiet man. He never talked about the war at all until (social situations) when the Marine came out in him.”
Extensive information can be found about Johnny Alfred’s life by doing an Internet search of his name.
Lawrence Jr. says his family encouraged caring and moving forward: “I think positive things, move away from negativity.”
He’s upbeat and likes to laugh and be around people. All people. He doesn’t see them in reds, rainbows, whites, blacks, browns or anything of the like: “If you want to be my friend, I’ll be yours.”