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$500,000 grant to help link tribal colleges with Bemidji State, Northwest Tech

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- A new $500,000 grant will expand higher education opportunities to American Indian reservations in northern Minnesota, officials announced this week.

A consortium of colleges has secured a $500,000 federal grant to develop high-definition video connections at area tribal colleges to allow those campuses to link up to BSU and Northwest Technical College for coursework.

“This is really big for us because it helps us provide the opportunity and the access,” said Dan King, president of Red Lake Nation College, which along with the Leech Lake Tribal College, White Earth Tribal and Community College and Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College partnered with BSU and NTC to form the Aazhoogan Consortium, or Bridge Consortium.

The grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was part of President Barack Obama’s ConnectED initiative. It is one piece of a broader effort to increase collaboration across campuses through course delivery, sharing institutional data, recruiting and retention, as well as improving students’ abilities to transfer from the tribal colleges to either BSU or NTC.

“This will build the capacity for the students and the staff to work cooperatively,” said Anton Treuer, executive director of the American Indian Resource Center on the BSU campus.

Native American students face different challenges as they pursue higher education, from cultural disassociation to the need for reliable transportation, which affect educational success and retention rates.

These connections, expected to be in place by fall, will allow American Indian students to participate in course offerings without having to commit to traveling to Bemidji, perhaps an hour each way five days every week.

“We have a lot of students right now on the reservation who graduated with a two-year degree … and they’re waiting for this to happen,” King said. “We’ll have students working on four-year degrees right here in Red Lake.”

The technology will be made available to students seeking both two- and four-year degrees.

Treuer said it could be used in a variety of ways, such as perhaps in an Ojibwe language class, where BSU and a tribal college would link in together to benefit from each other’s coursework.

“We could share the teaching staff in both places, connecting the students from the tribal colleges to Bemidji State so that when they transfer, they’ve already met virtually and in person all of the Native teaching staff at Bemidji State,” he said.

The consortium will only grow in the future, King said, noting that he could see other schools joining in the future.

“Personally, I think there’s going to be a big demand for this, so I think this is going to grow pretty fast,” he said, noting that another grant opportunity is coming up this spring.

“We still have much more to do,” Treuer said. “The biggest winners are going to be the students.”