25 years strong
April 24, 2009
John Kelleher Havre Daily News [email protected]
Melody Henry enrolled in Stone Child College the second year it was open. She recalls being unsure of herself, nervous about going out of town to college. She thought she would give Stone Child a try. "We had some classes in the Lutheran church, some in the Catholic church," she said. "The administration building was an old house, and the bookstore was in the basement." While Stone Child College lacked the amenities of larger schools, it had a devoted faculty, and there was fellowship among the students, she recalls. Obtaining her two-year degree from Stone Child gave her the education and the confidence she needed to make it at larger campuses, she said. "I remember walking across the stage at graduation," Henry recalls. "It gave me such a sense of accomplishment." Stone Child will launch its 25th anniversary celebration this weekend, and the staff feels the same sense of accomplishment, Henry said. After graduating from Stone Child, Henry obtained further degrees, returned to Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and is now president of her alma mater. More than 400 people have graduated from the college, it has moved to a new campus, a new gymnasium is being built and college officials are in the first stages of talks about offering four-year degrees in the future, though Henry warns college officials don't want to overextend themselves. The campus has come a long way since the idea of a community college was first discussed by the Chippewa Cree Tribal Education Commission, recalls Ed Stamper, who served on the commission in the 1980s. Today Stamper is the college's director of foundations and research. Henry calls him the "grandfather of the college." Tribal leaders wanted to do something to see that more young people received an education, Stamper said. Scholarships were provided and classes from other colleges were offered on the reservation. Stamper said he saw many people go to off-reservation campuses and not succeed. Many people, he said, were like Henry brilliant people who felt overwhelmed being away from their culture. Tribal leaders decided that a two-year college on the reservation would be the best answer. After years of work, on May 17, 1984, the college was chartered. Margaret "Peggy" Nagel was installed as the first president. "Sitting Old Woman" Building Nagel's Native American name is named in her honor. Soon, four women students became the first graduating class. In 1989, the college was formally accredited. Stamper said the college has given many students the push and the confidence they need. Having attended Stone Child for their first two years, students often transfer to four-year schools. Many have obtained master's degrees, two have doctorates, he said. "We have a doctor and lawyer among the graduates," Stamper said. "I never imagined we would have such a nice campus," Stamper said. "It is a state-ofthe- art campus. I think our computers are just as good as what they have in Havre." In 2002, the college moved to the new campus. New buildings have been constructed and the faculty has been expanded. And, Henry said, the campus can boast that it is debt-free. Henry and Stamper say the college makes special efforts to serve the special needs of the Chippewa Cree people. Day-care services are provided, special transportation is offered, there is free tutoring and last year when gas was $4 per gallon the college converted to a four-day week so students could conserve on fuel. The college offers courses in the Cree language, the history of United States Indians and Indian culture, Henry said. Staff and faculty work oneon- one with students to establish goal-setting for their academic and personal lives. Like many two-year colleges, the campus went through a period where many older students enrolled either in a degree program or just to take courses they were interested in. There are still lots of students in their 50s, Henry said. But "the average age of our student is younger," having dropped from 30 to about 26. Students coming out of high school immediately attend Stone Child, she said. "I went to senior night at Rocky Boy and Box Elder," Henry said. "And everyone was telling me they were going to come to Stone Child." Most Stone Child students come from Box Elder, Rocky Boy or Havre, she said. To make the college more attractive to younger students, the college is planning to build dormitories. There is also the possibility of a basketball team, she said. Upon graduation, many students transfer to Montana State University-Northern, she said. So the two schools are working to make the transition easier, "Often students take three courses here at Stone Child and one at Northern" she said, getting students ready for the day they go to Northern. Henry said she believes the college is "a bright spot in this community." "Life can be hard out here," she said "We have high unemployment and many social issues, but Stone Child is a beacon of hope." "I've seen people come here with no income, people receiving government assistance, and they become future leaders of our tribal council," Stamper said. Students try to give back to the community, Henry said. For instance, this week, students, faculty and staff picked up trash on campus and in the community. But for all the good times, there are sad times, too, Stamper said. “One of those times is at graduation," he said. "You see them walk across that stage, and you see the pride in their faces," he said. "And then you realize you may never see them again. You are happy for them, but you are also sad."