The graduation rate has increased nearly 60 percent from last year, when 61 Native Americans graduated from MSU. Ten years ago, 36 Native Americans graduated from the university.
Among the students who will be receiving degrees is Francesca Pine, who will receive a bachelor's degree in environmental studies. Pine is Crow and said she is the first person in her immediate family to earn a college degree. Following graduation, she will begin an internship with Plains Justice, a nonprofit environmental law center in Billings. She would like to enroll in law school in the fall of 2011.
Pine, 26, is a single mother and said much of her motivation to pursue higher education comes from her 7-year-old daughter.
"I wanted to be a good role model for my daughter," Pine said. "I also want to be able to get a good job so that I have a means of supporting her, and so that she can have a better chance of getting a college education herself."
Tammy Old Coyote, who is 27 and also a member of the Crow Nation, will receive a bachelor's degree in plant biology.
"Pursuing an education has always been an ambition for me, and people in my family encouraged it," Old Coyote said. She added that she had to take some time off so that she could earn money to help pay for school, and that it now feels like the persistence has paid off.
Many of the Native American graduates this spring were enrolled in MSU's Indian Leadership Education and Development (I LEAD) and Early Childhood Education Distance Partnership (ECEDP) programs. Both programs provide access to degrees for Native American students throughout Montana who have historically been underserved, according to program administrators.
ECEDP is a distance-learning program that helps Head Start teachers and early childhood educators in tribal communities throughout Montana complete bachelor's degrees from MSU in early childhood education. Online courses enable ECEDP students to live and work in their home communities while connecting with other Head Start teachers throughout reservations in Montana.
Laura Massey, the professor who started and directs the program, said 22 students will graduate this spring from the ECEDP program. A total of 33 students have graduated from ECEDP's previous three cohorts.
Jewel Ackerman, a 53-year-old mother and grandmother, is one of the students who will graduate from the program this spring. Ackerman enrolled in ECEDP because her job with Head Start on the Fort Peck Reservation required her to earn a bachelor's degree.
The ECEDP program worked for Ackerman because it was flexible, she said, adding that she would often do her coursework at home, after work, from about 7 p.m. until midnight.
"It was tough, but the instructors were great and everything was so convenient," she said.
Ackerman is planning to travel to Bozeman to attend commencement ceremonies with many of her family members.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world," she said.
Monica Morsette, another of the ECEDP's spring graduates, said she would absolutely recommend the program to others.
"It's been great. I've learned so much about how to be a better teacher, a better family advocate and a better coworker," she said. Morsette, 35, works at Early Head Start in Rocky Boy.
Similarly, the I LEAD program offers American Indian teachers in Montana and regionally an opportunity to earn a master's degree in school administration without having to leave their jobs. The program aims to place 55 new American Indian principals and superintendents in Montana by 2012. The program also recently expanded to include South Dakota, North Dakota and Alaska.
Fifteen students are expected to graduate from the program this spring with master's degrees, with another two receiving education specialist degrees, according to Catherine Gibbons, student support specialist for I LEAD. Another 15 students who have already earned master's degrees are receiving principal or superintendent certifications.
Carson Singer, a 44-year-old from Crow Agency, is one of this year's I LEAD graduates. He said the master's degree he's earning at MSU helped lead to a job as principal of Spotted Eagle High School, an urban Indian school in Milwaukee, Wis. He'll begin there in July.
"The program has been very helpful," he said. "It taught me a lot of basic fundamentals and gave me good practical experience multitasking. The distance learning aspect of it also taught me a lot about technology and how it can facilitate communication."
The increased rate of Native American graduates at MSU represents efforts by many at the university and beyond, according to Jim Burns, American Indian student adviser in the Department of Native American Studies.
Burns said that MSU has worked hard to become a university of choice for Native students. Part of those efforts include the I LEAD and ECEDP programs, which are especially mindful of students' obligations to their families, as well as their geographic and economic situations.
"This has been a collaborative effort across a variety of our colleges and support programs, as well as our tribal communities," Burns said. "They have all been working together to make this happen. It's such a great success."
For a complete list of 2010 graduates, visit:
Jim Burns, firstname.lastname@example.org or (406) 994-4880