Colleges Making Connections

May 15th, 1991 | By | Category: 3-1: Making Connections, Editor's Essay
By Paul Boyer

CONNECTIONS GRAPHICCompared to many other American colleges, Blackfeet Community College is at a disadvantage. Located in western Montana, it is geographically isolated and, like other tribal colleges, it is restricted financially.

But despite its limited resources and remote setting, the college is not as ill-equipped as it may appear. Instead, it is able to offer a range of programs that promote faculty development, community outreach and student articulation. It is also having an impact throughout the state’s higher education community. For example:

  • Faculty and staff have been able to grow professionally. Several instructors and staff were given the opportunity to earn master’s and doctorate degrees at Montana State University while still working at the tribal college through a unique program sponsored by the state university and funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • The college has joined in a partnership with the community’s public schools. This summer, staff member Gerard Vandeberg is working with the Browning Public School’s Gifted and Talented program to provide a series of courses and field trips to strengthen math and science skills. Through this Adopt-a-School program, sponsored by the American Indian Research Opportunity program at Montana State University, the college will offer a computer camp on its campus while trips are planned to areas of geological and cultural significance.
  • The college is encouraging students to continue their education at other colleges and universities. Strong connections with Montana State University have made it easier for Blackfeet College students to make the transition from a small community college to a large state university and succeed. Articulation agreements are expected to result from meetings being held with the University of Montana. In addition, students who wish to train as teachers can take two years of preparatory classes and then transfer to Western Montana College, under an agreement with that institution. Students interested in nursing, meanwhile, can also fulfill general education requirements at the college before continuing on at Salish Kootenai College, a nearby tribal college offering an associate degree in nursing.
  • More broadly, Blackfeet Community College is also an active partner in the development of state education policy. Through state-wide conferences and meetings with educa­tion leaders, college President Gordon Belcourt says that his institution is now “a part of the whole matrix of education in Montana.”

On its own, the college offers an assortment of associate degrees, providing students with the skills needed for employment or continued study. A strong cultural focus has also been stressed. But Blackfeet Community College has also strengthened its work and magnified its impact by making connections with a growing number of agencies and institutions, creating educational partnerships within the reservation and across the state.

In doing so, it is part of a larger trend. More than ever before, tribal colleges across the country are joining with foundations, corporations, colleges, and government agencies to help meet the many pressing needs that exist on their campuses and in their reservation communities. In addition to the examples above, dozens of other connections exist at other colleges, from community alcohol programs to faculty development to consultation on the creation of new federal Indian policy.

Educational and community partnerships are not a new idea. But the extraordinary increase in the number and variety of connections that are being made with tribal colleges makes this trend especially significant. It also offers some important challenges as these still-young institutions continue to define their missions.

Evidence of Acceptance: Tribal colleges have always built connections with other institutions and have been strengthened by them. Many of the first colleges, for example, were able to operate through formal agreements with established colleges and universities willing to recognize the credits of tribal college students. In addition, a small but important number of foundations and corporations were offering funding and expertise even when the colleges were new and relatively untested.

But most college administrators agree that much of the higher education community, and many policy-makers, knew little about the tribal colleges during their first difficult years. Some did not know they existed. Others misunderstood their missions. Others saw them as educational competitors. Even a few years ago, a college development officer complained that he could not find support beyond a small circle of regional foundations.

But as their successes have become clear and their work has been described nationwide, college administrators are finding that they speak to a growing and increasingly receptive audience of educators, policy-makers and financial supporters. “We are no longer the black sheep of the family,” confirms Blackfeet College President Belcourt. “Through hard work we are now peers in the higher education system.”

All Benefit: But the value of connections is not just sym­bolic. The support that the colleges receive and the partner­ships that are created strengthen the colleges and tribal communities in real ways. It provides funding for special projects, valuable expertise to staff and faculty, and the opportunity for greater community outreach.

The tribal colleges clearly benefit from these and other projects. Directly and indirectly, the reservations do as well. But what may be the most striking feature of these partnerships is that its impact reaches far beyond these communities.

More and more, the tribal colleges are seen as valuable resources by the non-Indian colleges and universities.  According to Gerard Vandeberg of Blackfeet Community College, this is especially true in an era of tight budgets. “I think you’re going to see the tribal colleges’ role in preparing students for the university system to be increasing. As the university system budgets go down—or at least don’t increase— they are having to restrict enrollments. So the role of tribal colleges as a transfer point is increasingly important.”

By strengthening the tribal colleges, then, the higher education community is also able to strengthen itself. More than a statement of respect, cooperation with tribal colleges results from the understanding that “there is a growing need for us all to work together,” Vandeberg says.

The impact of the colleges is extending even further. Tribal college leaders are now being asked to take an active role in shaping state and federal Indian policy. Salish Kootenai College President Joseph McDonald, who is also head of the college consortium this year, ticks off a partial list of commitments the presidents have made: He is on the board of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges; James Shanley of Fort Peck College is finishing a term with the American Council on Education; David Gipp of United Tribes Technical College is taking part in the proposed reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; Janine Windy Boy of Little Big Horn College is working with the Smithsonian Institution as it sets policy for the new Museum of the American Indian; and Lionel Bordeaux of Sinte Gleska College is participating in the up­coming White House Conference on Indian Education and the Department of Education’s Indian Nations at Risk report.

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