No gas money.
Fort Peck Community College (FPCC) president Haven Gourneau has heard almost every excuse from students who miss class.
With the services and help the college offers its staff, students, and even students’ family members, Gourneau believes there’s no justification for anyone to skip class. “It’s real difficult to hear students’ excuses,” she says.
Like many students, Gourneau took advantage of that help when she was a full-time FPCC student nearly 30 years ago. It came in handy when going to class, raising six children, running a household, and working several jobs.
Over the years, the college has increased its services to help students make it to class every day. “It’s amazing the amount of services we provide,” Gourneau exclaims. “People are stunned. They ask, ‘How do you provide that many services?’ It’s because we’re creative and accommodating.”
If anyone is familiar with the tribal college experience and its offerings, it’s Gourneau. In 1987, she walked into FPCC at the urging of her sister-in-law. “I didn’t even know where the college was located,” she recalls. The day she found the campus just happened to be registration day, so Gourneau signed up for college classes after faculty encouraged her to enroll. It was the first time she sat in a classroom since graduating from Poplar High School in 1979.
“After the first day of class I was hooked,” she says. “I didn’t challenge myself in high school, I did the bare minimum. This gave me the experience to challenge myself all over again.”
In between classes she worked as an assistant in student services. At home, her husband Frank and her siblings helped out when needed. “I didn’t sleep a lot. We still had bills to pay,” recalls Gourneau. “The college was also there to help in any way. They also knew the struggles we were going through.” She earned her Associate of Arts degree from FPCC in 1990, and immediately went to work full-time in the student services office. Her thirst for knowledge, however, called her back into the classroom. She eventually earned her Bachelor of Science degree with a major in business management from Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, where she graduated cum laude in 1996. She went on to complete a master’s degree in business management from Gonzaga University in 2004.
Each time, she and her husband decided to keep their kids at home in Poplar rather than uproot them to a larger city. “Here, we had a lot of family that could help out,” she says. As president at FPCC, she is currently working on her doctoral degree in educational leadership from the University of Montana.
Since she first worked as an aide in the student services office, Gourneau has worn a variety of hats while employed at FPCC. She began her administrative career as the financial aid director, a position she held for 16 years before being hired as the vice president for student services in 2006. In this position she supervised seven programs and their directors, while also supervising the school’s dormitory and teaching a beading class at night. Away from the college, she was busy at home helping to raise her grandkids, while also serving on the Poplar School Board and working with her church’s local rescue mission.
In January 2014, FPCC’s board of directors appointed Gourneau as interim president while searching nationwide for a new permanent president to serve the college’s 400-plus students. Gourneau threw her hat in the ring late in the hiring process at the urging of some family, friends, and coworkers. After a meeting in Billings, the college’s board of directors selected Gourneau.
With nearly three decades as an FPCC student and employee, it would be her biggest challenge to date. “I thought ‘easy-peasy’ because I knew about and worked on most of the positions here at the college,” she confesses. “But you don’t really know until you sit here.”
Robert McAnally, director of student support services at FPCC, said Gourneau was a natural for the transition and the only logical choice because of her close ties with the community, and her experience at the college and with tribal politics. “The learning curve is not there, you won’t need someone taking two years to learn the job,” he said.
Gourneau is also a true success story who epitomizes what the college is all about: taking someone with no applicable skills and building that person up to where she has the ability to run the college. “She’s from the story book. That’s the reason we were built. That’s the reason we’re still here,” says McAnally, who came out of retirement when he got the call from Gourneau to fill an open position.
The biggest test for her as the new president has been to maintain funding in these cost-cutting times and to keep enrollment steady. “Across the nation there is an enrollment decline and financial issues,” Gourneau observes. “Our biggest challenge has been to stay at the same level. And we’ve been able to meet that.”
Gourneau says the college now offers a wide variety of courses and has seen an uptick in male enrollment due to short-term programs like commercial driver’s license (CDL) certification, building and trades, truck-driving school, and welding. There’s also been an increase in women enrolling in those courses too, along with the certified nursing assistant (CNA) classes, she maintains.
Gourneau is the first of her siblings to earn a bachelor’s degree, and her path has broken down barriers for her family. Some of her brothers and sisters have enrolled in classes, and all six of Gourneau’s children have attended FPCC in the past decade. “It’s not about being smart. It’s about working hard,” she says.
Gourneau carries the Indian name Blowing Prayer Cloth Woman, which was given to her by an Assiniboine spiritual leader. The name fits into her goal of promoting and maintaining the culture, traditions, and language of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes—and fitting that into the college’s mission. “When someone walks through our door we want them to see and sense that they’re in a tribal college,” she states.
Gourneau attributes her independence and strength to the time she spent as a boarding school student at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota. Gourneau’s late mother sent her there in the early 1970s due to the lack of family finances at home. Gourneau would package rosary beads for donors in order to get spending money.
“My experience in boarding school was lonely, but it set a foundation for independence. It made me stronger and independent before my time as an adult,” she explains.
Student services director McAnally says it’s that strength and independence that will carry the college to the next level: “She can do great things for our reservation and region.”
Richard Peterson is a freelance journalist and a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.