LaVonne Bakken sits at a table working on her laptop computer in an empty classroom. The 22-year-old Bakken grew up in the nearby town of Wauban. Six years ago, she left the reservation to attend college at Minnesota State University -Moorhead. She says leaving a small town of 400 people to attend college in the Fargo-Moorhead area was a shock. She didn't do well in her classes.
That's when Bakken's aunt, who works at White Earth Tribal College, suggested she come home to go to college.
"Moving to Fargo, not knowing anybody and then having all these classes to run around to and not being able to have a one-on-one with the instructors (wasn't good)," says Bakken. "My Aunt has been here (White Earth Tribal College) almost since it started. I decided I wanted to come home and I came here and I had lots of one- on-one with the instructors."
Bakken has a double major in business administration and marketing. In addition to raising a 15-month-old son, she also works as a youth counselor for the tribe. She's doing well and plans to stay on the reservation and open a small business with her boyfriend.
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"He wants to open up a small engine repair shop," Bakken says. "I'd do the books, he'd do the mechanic work. He says he'd be more comfortable with that. Now that's an angle that will probably happen you know 10 years, 15 years down the road with experience and everything." There are 125 students enrolled at the White Earth Tribal College, that's on the small side for a tribal post-secondary school. The White Earth college offers two-year degrees in a number of subjects. About 25 percent of students at the college graduate. Tribal college President Robert Peacock says Lavonne Bakken is the type of person White Earth needs to be successful.
"In other words, not losing your children off to other parts of the country," Peacock says. "You can educate them here, you can hopefully develop other programs that will keep young people here working in industry, working in business, working in the sciences and the services, that provide everything from nursing to teaching."
The White Earth Tribal College was founded in 1997. It meets all federal standards for college accreditation and offers classes in business, nursing and 12 other programs. Peacock says the school partners with other colleges like Minnesota State University - Moorhead to provide classes through video hookups.
Peacock says someday they may build a campus but for now the college is housed in several different buildings on the Main Street of Mahnomen.
In a region of the state that is struggling economically, the idea is to make higher education affordable. It costs $90.00 per credit to attend White Earth Tribal College. That's the lowest cost per credit of any college in northwest Minnesota. The White Earth college operates on a budget of $750,000; money raised by the White Earth tribe.
There are only 35 tribal colleges in the country. David Gipp is the president of the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota. The school opened it's doors in 1969 and is one of the oldest tribal colleges in the country.
Gipp believes for a tribal college to succeed it must meet the needs of it's students, beyond the classroom.
"We're a bit unique at United Tribes, in that we have two early childhood centers and a K thru 8 elementary school on our campus," Gipp says. "Frankly, most post-secondary schools in the nation don't have (that)." Gipp says those facilities appeal to single parents who find it tough to leave their home and family to attend college. He says their culture puts an emphasis on staying close together.
Getting students to stay in school is another challenge. Figures from the American Indian Higher Education Consortium show only 15 percent of students at tribal colleges get their two-year associate degrees. Those figures are much higher at United Tribes college where 88 percent of students graduate.
LaVonne Bakken says she wants to help those numbers increase. Bakken says her big dream is to some day work for the White Earth Tribal College.
"I could still be working with the youth and could be helping the community," Bakken says. "Oh that would be awesome."
Getting people like Bakken trained and keeping them at home is what White Earth College President Robert Peacock wants to do. He says that's the best way to improve life on reservations.