Recently, when nine students graduated from Spokane Tribal College (STC), it was one of the largest graduating classes in the history of the tiny college. Located on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, STC was established in 1995 and is accredited through Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana.
Since its founding, STC has discovered that it’s paying off to have a tribal college closer to home. “People want to live on the rez,” says Shelly Wynecoop, the director and chief executive officer of STC. She’s been employed at the college for six years. “Our mission is access…If someone’s car breaks down, we can go get them. That’s the kind of investment we have in families,” she says, adding, “We’re in it together.”
Of STC’s student body, one-third are new high school graduates; the rest are older returning students seeking to earn associate’s degrees in business management, liberal arts, business technology, media design, and Native American studies. STC also offers one-year certificate programs in office professions and Native American studies, recently adding medical office billing to their certificate offerings.
“I have such high esteem for our students who are going to school at night, because they work during the day…doing homework on the bus—talk about character! They’re modeling such commitment to higher education,” says Wynecoop. And instructors return that commitment to parents who can’t find a sitter for their child by allowing them to bring the child to class. “If they (the children) grow up in a (college) classroom it becomes the norm,” observes Wynecoop. “So we put up with a little noise.” She recalls a young boy who would accompany his father to his Salish language class. “Of course when they’re that young they really pick it up!”—which forced the father to keep up in class as well.
About half of STC’s teaching faculty are American Indian. “We really do prefer Native people because I really want our students to see themselves in these professions,” says Wynecoop. She says it is also important to listen to the needs of the community. After learning from a report by the Inter Tribal Timber Council that half of the master foresters are set to retire in the next five years, Wynecoop and her board began working to establish a forestry degree program. “Hopefully we’ll get some tribal people in to manage the forests,” she says.
Another short-term goal is working with community partners, like the prison nearby. “We are disproportionately represented in prison,” Wynecoop notes. Having a class with their peers makes college more comfortable for inmates, who can continue once they are released. “I just say welcome home.”
In 2007, STC started offering classes in the city of Spokane, where an estimated 12,000 American Indians live, representing 80 tribes from across the country. Since it is accredited through Salish Kootenai College, STC can offer the same programs and classes with minor modifications based on local culture. But part of the college’s strategic plan is to gain accreditation on its own. First, however, STC must meet a vigorous list of standards, among them financial stability and increased enrollment. Wynecoop is working on both. The college is growing enrollment by visiting more than 50 local high schools each year. “We have a vision and it requires investment,” she says.
It’s an investment that Wynecoop understands well. “I grew up in a house without books,” she says. “I never heard the word college.” But one day a teacher brought in photographs of places he had visited around the world and talked about his experiences. “That really was a light bulb moment for me. When this guy showed us pictures I had only seen in books, that’s when the world got so big for me.”
Since then, Wynecoop has come full circle. Her first office was once her kindergarten classroom. “That’s the biggest circle anyone has ever taken,” she laughs. But it’s all part of a greater plan to have a tribal college closely tied to the traditions and culture of the Spokane people. “We’re here to help each other out,” she says.