Pawnee Nation College has High Hopes for the Future

Aug 20th, 2015 | By | Category: 27-1: Tribal College Communities, Tribal College News

President Michael Burgess and Pawnee Nation College’s board of trustees hope to expand operations and join AIHEC. Photo by Amber Whiteshirt

When Pawnee Nation College (PNC) opened its doors in Pawnee, Oklahoma in 2005, it had a whopping enrollment of 23 students. First called Pawnee Nation Academy, the institution changed its name in 2006. Today, PNC’s student body has more than doubled, with an enrollment of 59 students. Each student is working towards an associate’s degree in American Indian Studies with an emphasis in artistic studies, cultural studies, or leadership and management.

Since PNC is not yet accredited, the college has an agreement with Bacone College, 125 miles to the east, allowing the students to dual-enroll and earn credits which are then transferable to any university in Oklahoma. “I sure do like it,” says Michael Burgess, the president of PNC and a former chairman of the Comanche Nation. He first joined PNC in 2012 as part of the faculty and then was named interim president in 2013, before being hired in June 2014 as president. His career in education goes back to 1999, when he taught at California State University–Long Beach.

Burgess oversees three staff and three faculty members. Eight students graduated in 2015. “The Pawnee Nation is very proud of its college,” says Burgess. “The community and the businesses support this college and support the effort we are doing.” He’s especially pleased when the community shows up for PNC events. And since the student body is so small, that means a favorable teacher-to-student ratio. When a student is failing, it’s the instructor who reaches out to help. “We do everything we can to keep the students in college,” maintains Burgess, recalling how one instructor gave up her lunch hour to tutor a student.

Efforts were underway to get the college accredited before Burgess came on board, but the criteria suddenly changed, forcing PNC to reapply. He estimates it will be another two years before PNC tries for its own accreditation. The college’s two main goals today are to raise the enrollment (200 is the magic number) and to raise more funds for capacity building. “We are in a poor economic area,” explains Burgess. Still, he remains optimistic. “Every fall we have a one-day conference and bring in Indian leaders to talk about leadership,” he says. This is part of PNC’s drive to train students in areas that will benefit their tribal government.

That also translates into language and cultural classes. According to the college, PNC “has created a powerful and ironic metaphor that is centered on survival and a kind of poetic justice. All students who attend PNC are required to take and complete courses in Pawnee language or Pawnee cultural studies.”

Today, the college is housed in two buildings that once were part of the Pawnee Indian Boarding School, also known as “Gravy U,” for all the gravy the students ate at every meal. And like all the other government-run boarding schools for Native children, this one too had a campaign to “kill the Indian to save the man.” But today PNC is transforming the location into a place that celebrates Pawnee culture. In fact, the college’s motto is “Indigenizing Higher Education for All.”

“On the cultural side, when Indian people get their minds together, they can achieve great things,” says Burgess. “Go to college and come back and be a good leader,” he exalts. He knows what students will encounter if they decide to try a career in tribal politics. “We can’t rely on outside help, we need to train our own how to manage our business.”

It will take money to grow, and right now he says they are building their coffers to offer more opportunities to the students, like joining the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) so they can fully participate in the organization’s yearly student conference. He also knows they will need to build some dorms to house future students. It’s all part of the future grand plan, and Burgess says, “I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

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