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New Era for Reservation Education

Community college in Wisconsin leads in providing Indians better classroom opportunities

HAMMERS are pounding on the other side of the wall.Seated in his office, Jasjit S. Minhas hears the hammering as a ringing anvil rather than a banging nuisance. "We are building new classrooms, a computer center, and a multipurpose room," he says, "and this wall behind me will be taken out." Dr. Minhas is the president of small Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College on the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation in northwest Wisconsin. He and his staff and students are an example of the remarkable growth happening on the 27 Indian colleges on reservations in the United States. The colleges are community-based, chronically underfunded, committed to education, and revitalizing tribal heritage. They have pushed and pulled themselves to the "threshold of a new era," says Ernest Boyer in a report on their success by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The "new era" means that these tenacious little colleges are proving to be the focal point for cultural hope as well as providing alternative education aimed at tribal needs. After losing their ancestral lands and being shunted to reservations, most Indian tribes have suffered for 100 years from inconsistent federal policies and broken treaties. By establishing colleges on reservations and turning to themselves for the spark to light the fires of learning, and despite formidable odds, the Indian colleges are succeeding. Dr. Boyer and other experts concur that a basis for genuine self-determination is appearing. "When I came here in l988," says Minhas, "I didn't know the college was $45,000 in the red. I had to go to the bank and borrow money to pay salaries. The collateral was a letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs saying we would get the money." In l988 the college was five years old and housed in a barn-like building among pine trees. Classes were held day and night. Enrollment hovered around 70 students but was declining. It was a college in name only. Now, as the academic year begins, Minhas and his staff expect an enrollment of over 250 full-time students. By doggedly pursuing grants and funds, and with tight fiscal management and savvy leadership, the college has grown. Networking with other Indian colleges is increasing. Last year the college added a small library, needed offices, a small computer center, and a science lab. The latest building under construction - by college vocational students - will provide room for an even larger computer center, a multipurpose student center, and more classrooms. Some classes will have the capacity to offer televised instruction from the University of Wisconsin. The MacArthur Foundation in Chicago provided a $130,000 grant for the building. "We are giving most of our students a second chance," says Ann Marie Penzkover, the college registrar and a teacher in Native American studies. The majority of students at this and other Indian colleges are women in their early 30s with several children. "Many students just weren't motivated when they were in high school," says Ms. Penzkover. "Our biggest challenge now is to give equal-life opportunities to people who are mostly in poverty. We've lived this way so long that its part of our strength that we are able to survive on so little and do so much. We are going to be here 10 years from now no matter what it takes." "Unlike most colleges," says Minhas, "we work on the theory that it is our responsibility to teach the students." When classes start and students are absent, college secretaries and officers call the students and ask why they aren't in class. "Sometimes we go to their homes and get them," says Minhas. "Often they are just sleeping or depressed." Two-year associate degrees are offered in business administration, tribal management, alcohol and substance-abuse counseling, secretarial science, commun- ity health educator, and Native American studies. Certificates are offered in child day-care attendant, computer-literacy training, teacher aide, emergency medical technician, and others. A three-year building-trades program provides training for 30 participants. The college also helps raise literacy on the reservation with tutors assigned to "Project Read." And "Inward Journey" is a drug-abuse-prevention project that draws upon tribal elders sharing their knowledge and experiences. Beginning this semester, an associate degree in paralegal training will be offered, enabling a graduate to become a legal advocate in tribal courts. Dale Cooper, an Ojibwa Chippewa and the father of two children, has taken a number of courses at the college. "I want an education because I want to work for the tribe," he says. "Most of my general education courses are completed and maybe I can get the paralegal program done in a year." Several years ago Mr. Cooper attended college at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. He completed his freshman year but dropped out the next year because the experience was "too overwhelming," he says, "and I really don't think I was prepared well enough for it. But I only have myself to blame." Often Indians graduate from reservation high schools and attend large state or private universities. Away from the reservation for the first time, they struggle within a new "culture." Many leave college and return to the reservation, confused and unsure of themselves. The dropout rate has been estimated as high as 90 percent. What the tribal colleges provide are convenient location, community support, a faculty familiar with tribal culture, and a touchstone for traditional values and ideas. "I feel really good about being here and I'm glad the college is growing," says Cooper. STUDIES from three tribal colleges indicate that as many as 80 percent of students complete their courses. And data from six accredited tribal colleges indicated that between l983 and l989 more than 1,500 Indians graduated, with 1,198 earning associate degrees and 158 earning bachelor degrees. Helping all the tribal colleges to grow is the new American Indian College Fund, a nonprofit organization founded by the tribal college presidents and based in New York. Modeled after the United Negro College Fund, it turns to private corporations, foundations and individuals to raise money for scholarships, equipment, and facility improvements. Recently the Knight Foundation awarded $150,000 to the fund and US WEST Foundation gave $1.2 million to support an advertising campaign for the fund. The Bureau of Indian Affairs provides the bulk of the college funds, based on the number of full-time students. "We appreciate the funding," says Minhas, "but it can be a major problem because many times Congress does not decide on the budget until well into the fiscal year. It's very difficult to plan. Our goal is full accreditation in five years and to be a four-year college. We will reach that level but it will take time."

For more information about the college, write: Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College Rte. 2, Box 2357 Hayward, WI 54843

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