2022 Indigenous Communities Fellowship


ONNSFA scholarship app: Increasing technology information

An app to use for scholarship applications and a foundation for introducing technology to the Navajo Nation.

Team Lead

Brittany Gene

Solution Overview & Team Lead Details

Our Organization

Brittany Gene Design

What is the name of your solution?

ONNSFA scholarship app: Increasing technology information

Provide a one-line summary of your solution.

An app to manage an efficient scholarship application process for the Navajo Nation. Building a foundation for elevated technology into tribal affairs

What specific problem are you solving?

In 2018 the Office of Nation Nation Scholarship and Financial Assistance (ONNSFA) received 13,210 scholarship applications. Approximately 49% (6,530) of applicants were denied financial assistance. 91% of the denied applicants, 5,950 students, were deemed ineligible for financial assistance from ONNSFA due to their application missing documents. It's a shocking number when you see the statistics but when you take a closer look at the process it is easy to see why almost half of all application were deemed incomplete.

2018 ONNSFA Denials

Submitting the initial online application is fairly intuitive. However, in order to complete the application, ONNSFA requires the following six documents to be submitted.

  1. Certificate of Indian blood - obtained by mailing, faxing with notary or dropping off in person a request to the NN Office of Vital Records, who will then send a copy to the student's ONNSFA agency.
  2. Financial need analysis - student must complete their FAFSA. Then the student can request a financial need analysis to be completed and sent to their ONNSFA agency or through the ONNSFA portal by financial aid counselor if the university has partnered with ONNSFA.  
  3. Official transcripts - Request from student's college or 3rd party organization (parchment.com). Student pays any mailing or admin fees.
  4. Semester schedule - Download from college portal and upload to ONNSFA student portal. 
  5. Graduation checklist signed - Contact student's college advisor to complete the form and sign off. Then student uploads document to portal.
  6. Enrollment verification -  Download from college portal or other 3rd party accreditation site and upload to ONNSFA student portal.

After all documents are requested the student is responsible for contacting all  agencies to check the status of their documents. Successfully submitting documents alone can take several weeks to months as there are documents that are only accepted through mail, required by fax or retrieved from a 3rd party organization. As it exists, eligibility can be affected by external factors like a fax machine going offline or slow mail processing. (see detailed user experience here)

In the bigger scheme of things, The Navajo Nation, while it does its best to serve all 403,000 enrolled tribal members, struggles to manage its protocols and procedures with outdated processes. Recently, the NN government disbursed funding to assist tribal members as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The process spanned several months with holdups due outdated data management and distribution processes that were similar to those that students face in the scholarship application process. In these instances it becomes clear that there is opportunity to design and implement existing technology to reduce the amount of barriers when helping the people of the Navajo Nation.

What is your solution?


My solution is to create a platform like an app that Navajo Nation scholars can use to update and store their information, submit and request necessary documents safely and directly, and see the status of their scholarship applications. Additionally, the ONNSFA staff can use the backend of the platform to manage documents, send updates, communicate with the students and disburse funds quickly and efficiently so student are not dropped from classes and their accounts are subjugated to late fees or penalties.

See more about the solution and research here: www.brittanygene.com/onnsfa-ap...

Additionally, I believe that an app could extend beyond the scholarship office and into areas like the Office of Vital Records. For instance tribal members could use an app to request verified documents and update their mailing information. They could apply for permits, project and other funding opportunities offered by the government through an app. An app could also be beneficial when the NN government wants to communicate and connect with all tribal members directly to avoid misinformation. Currently, the NN uses Meta (formally known as Facebook) to stream live council sessions and significantly relies on the platform to distribute news. 

However, in order to start making steps toward integrating technology like this to the masses, I believe we must start with a smaller project. Which is why investing in a scholarship app and testing with a tech savvy group like college students would be of benefit for the Navajo Nation and all enrolled members.

Strong preference will be given to Native-led solutions that directly benefit and are located within the Indigenous communities. Which community(s) does your solution benefit? In what ways will your solution benefit this community?

The target population/community I am aiming to help with my solution is Navajo Nation members who are seeking higher education and vocational training and the Office of Navajo Nation and Financial Assistance staff. 

The average age of college students is 26.4. This age demographic has a moderate to high level of technological literacy. With that in mind, the introduction of an app to this demographic presents a favorable outcome that a majority of the group will be open to try and test the app. 

As a former college student (undergraduate and masters level) I had to go through this process to seek financial assistance. I have first hand experience what obstacles exist and what the needs of the demographic are. Additionally, I have collected quantitative data and qualitative data about this subject matter through published research, process making, user journey, observation studies, and interviews.

Solution near future benefits:

  • Makes financial aid opportunities more accessible to all students applying to higher education.

  • Reduce student stress by removing unnecessary steps to apply and allowing more opportunities for financial availability.

  • Better communication between scholars and ONNSFA staff.

  • Overall, quicker process for students and staff.

  • Safer documentation of personal information for Navajo Tribal members.

  • Less paper management means less storage space for the NN government.

  • Staff can access information safely and remotely in case they are not allowed into the office. (i.e COVID-19 lockdown) As to not stall the process of awarding and distributing funds.

  • Increase in opportunities for tech jobs on the reservation for graduates.

  • Increase data collection to understand alternative ways ONNSFA can support student success.

  • Better transparency and accountability for students and staff.

  • Understanding that some scholars have a lower tech literacy level-- the solution allows those who use the analog process to less traffic when applying.

Solution long term benefits:

  • Testing digital personal information documentation on a smaller scale with a group of people that are more tech savvy.

  • An opportunity to learn how to extend digital documentation to all tribal members to better serve the people and provide access to resources.

  • Gain more direct knowledge and data from people. This can help guide where resources are allocated when creating policy and programs.

  • More tech and tech related jobs opening up on the reservation.

  • Preparing procedures and policies for the next generation of Navajo tribal members.

How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

I had the opportunity to present my research and concept to a group of 20-30 high to entry level, non-indigenous designers and developers. I observed that majority had little to no knowledge about Native government, social relations, resources, policy, procedures and enrollment. The discussion proved that no amount of experience or expertise in technology would be able to compensate for Indigenous knowledge that comes from being a part of a Native community. The Indigenous experience is unique and needs designers and developers who have lived the experience to lead and recruit for successful projects.

It is easy to observe that the application practice is technologically outdated, furthermore it can be debated that it is socially outdated as well. For instance, the application requires a verification of a student's certificate of Indian blood  (CIB). CIBs are based on blood quantum, a system forced onto Native people by U.S government to determine "Nativeness" in the 1800s. To this day, Native people are the only race in the United States that is required to show and verify pedigree.

Imagine if Native people could start taking steps towards designing their own systems to replace existing procedures. An example would be listening to the community and implementing practices that include clanship or community acknowledgment to recognize Native identity instead of solely relying blood quantum to determine a persons "Nativeness". This is only an example, but ideas like this that challenge the norm, I firmly believe, could only come from a person who has idea of how Native history, relationships and communities work.

I believe that I am the right person for leading a project like this because of my willingness to listen to my community. I began this project prior to any incentives. As a community member I was able to use my own lived experience and other community members' experiences to start developing a solution. Currently, there are no specific blueprints or guidelines for an app like this. Meaning it's a project that could be tailored for and guided by voices of the community.  I believe that a scholarship app led by a community person, like myself, could be the beginning of creating effective methods for connecting and serving the Navajo people.

Where our solution team is headquartered or located:

Juneau, AK, USA

Our solution's stage of development:


How many people does your solution currently serve?


Why are you applying to Solve?

I am applying to Solve for several reasons. 

  • I want to present this concept to allow others who might have a similar ideas that they are not alone. Along that same sentiment I want to attract and potentially recruit others who have tech or design skills and want to contribute and be part of this project.
  • I want to highlight and draw attention to the fact that (for whatever reasons) there is a wide spread lack of implementing available technology into tribal governments and organizations.
  • If selected I wanted to learn more about overcoming the barriers of trying to work with government entities. I can see a fully functional app being created but there being push back due to "uncertainty" or fear of change. I've seen fear of change halt and dissolve amazing projects and I want to speak with leaders in the field that can provide me with knowledge to overcome and avoid this.
  • I also would like to investigate ways of financially finding investment opportunities and developing long term capital for a venture like this that doesn't solely rely on Navajo Nation funding.
  • Lastly, I am applying because there is a real need for better communication and efficiency. COVID-19 affected the ability for the Navajo Nation to respond quickly to help student and tribal members. On the ONNSFA and Navajo Nation Council Communications Meta (formally known as Facebook) pages tribal members voiced the opinion about needing help or looked to get help for other community members. (see screen shots of public forums below)

In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?

  • Human Capital (e.g. sourcing talent, board development, etc.)
  • Financial (e.g. improving accounting practices, pitching to investors)
  • Technology (e.g. software or hardware, web development/design, data analysis, etc.)

Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Brittany Gene

Please indicate the tribal affiliation of your Team Lead.


Is the Team Lead a resident of the United States?


Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

Drive positive outcomes for Native learners of any or all ages while supporting culturally grounded educational opportunities on and/or off reservations.

More About Your Solution

What makes your solution innovative?

Many Native nations, including the Navajo Nation, have not adopted an elevated technology information management systems. My app introduces a significantly improved approach to this issue by focusing on a medium sized target demographic to test and adopt the first application that would automate and manage a process that is severely lacking in user based design. 

Currently, when applying for a Navajo Nation scholarship there are several steps that do not use technology that is available and it creates obstacles for students submitting documents and distribution of funds from the office of Navajo Nation Scholarship and Financial Assistance, and provides poor communications for all parties involved. That being said the app would set the ground work for creating a system that could manage official documents for tribal members and create pathways for applying for programs and opportunities offered by the government. The app could also be the start of collecting big data about the needs and patterns of Navajo people in order for the government to better approach policy development. 

I believe that by having a way to better keep records and interact more efficiently with the the Navajo people will benefit both government and the people of the Navajo Nation.

What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and how will you achieve them?

Over the next year, I hope to have a fully developed prototype to test more extensively with a small group of users. Additionally, I hope to approach ONNSFA with fully working prototype in hopes that will be willing to adopt the app in the future.

In the next five years I hope that the Navajo Nation would begin investing in technology to better serve the people. Additionally, I hope to begin more data analysis on the app after it has collected more data after it's been implemented.

During this time I also hope to increase my team and establish a collective of designers and developers that work as a network for this project.

How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?

One of the biggest indicators I will be using to measure my progress once the app is implemented is the data that the app is able to capture about the demographic that is being supported in college. An easy measurement to see is if the number of denials for missing documentation is reduced and how many students are being funded. I believe the app could serve as a way to collect information on secondary education. Data has always been a struggle to collect because American Indians/Alaskan Natives make up ~1% of the student population in the U.S.

A long term measurement would be to understand what our graduates are studying and where they go after college. Currently the term "Brain Drain" is used to describe the pipeline that lands scholars with an education but keeps them from returning to the reservation because of a lack employment and economic opportunities. I believe that by collecting and analyzing statistics from the app  can offer some insight as to how we can build opportunities and economies that support graduates who wish to return to the reservation.

What is your theory of change?

Theory of Change

  1. Nearly half of all students that apply for financial assistance from the Navajo Nation are deemed ineligible with no consideration due to missing documentation.  2018 Annual Report
  2. Submitting documentation is a difficult, multi-step, multi-organization, and multi-transmission process. Applicant Process, User Journey Map
  3. By reducing the amount steps, removing middlemen/organization involved and eliminated unnecessary transport pathways (i.e fax machines), thereby making it easier to submit documents, we can decrease the amount of student who are ineligible for funding due to missing documentation.


  • 19/20 students interviewed for this project acknowledged having an app would significantly help them complete the process.
  • 7/14 students admitted to being denied funding due to the office never receiving their paper work when they requested documentation from an outside organization.
  • Internet is still lacking on the Navajo reservation, however a small studie by the American Indian Policy Institute at ASU show that 5g and smart phones allow many Native American's access to the internet.  https://news.asu.edu/20191018-...
  • From March 2020- Sept. 2020 ONNSFA launched a Google survey to their students in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The results were very specific was illustrates the importance the the ONNSFA offices and how essential communication when it comes to supporting their students. See a snapshot of the results below.

Describe the core technology that powers your solution.

I am presenting a solution that uses an app to help manage systems.

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new application of an existing technology

Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Big Data
  • Software and Mobile Applications

Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?

  • 4. Quality Education
  • 9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

In which states do you currently operate?

  • Alaska
  • Arizona

In which states will you be operating within the next year?

  • Arizona
Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?

Not registered as any organization

How many people work on your solution team?

Currently, working with one volunteer (per diem contractor/consultant).

How long have you been working on your solution?

2 years on and off

What is your approach to incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusivity into your work?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are important to me as a Diné woman. In the design profession there is a huge imbalance of diversity. For industrial designers the field is dominated by 72.9% males. Additionally, American Indian/Alaska Native people make up .3% of the field. 

Part of the reason I am applying to Solve MIT is to increase awareness and to seek out other who work in tech and design. My approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion is to work network and recruit the Native tech and design community and resources and prioritize people who have proven themselves to be passionate about the community despite their race, ethnicity, age and gender.

Your Business Model & Funding

What is your business model?

There are a few business models to consider when developing and adopting a web based and mobile platform. The original idea was to use outside funding to research and develop the project and give the soft wear to the NN government directly to manage and operate the app. However, after completing the social business model canvas, it was decided that providing a subscription or license to the NN government might be a better method for expansion and long term development (B2G). Long term the government could offset their license and subscription costs by allowing ad based revenue, fundraising, seeking grants and/or monetizing data by selling statistics to online data bases like National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, to other organizations, or to the government?

Government (B2G)

What is your plan for becoming financially sustainable?

Initially, to help build and develop a prototype we plan on seeking funding from grants and fundraising efforts. Long term to keep the platform up and running we want to use consider using  a subscription service, ad-based financing, grants and data monetization.

Share some examples of how your plan to achieve financial sustainability has been successful so far.

Up to this point no funding as been raised or acquired for this project. All efforts have research, developed and prototyped at no cost from myself and community members who volunteered to take part in my user studies.

Solution Team

  • Brittany Gene Industrial & Product Designer, Brittany Gene Design, www.brittanygene.com
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