Lummi tribal college pioneers first degree of its kind in US

By Emily Hamann

One local college has a business and government degree program so popular, it’s drawing students from all around the state, and even the country. And this unique degree is being offered at the only college of its kind in the Northwest, located right here in Whatcom County.

Five years ago, Northwest Indian College began offering its tribal governance and business management bachelor’s degree. It has since become the most popular four-year degree program on campus.

NWIC is one of 38 tribal colleges in the country, but is the only one serving tribal members in the Northwest.

Next closest tribal colleges are in Montana, Alaska and California. NWIC’s main campus, which serves around 300 students, is on the Lummi Reservation, but it also serves around 300 more students at its six extension campuses, which serve the Swinomish, Tulalip, Muckleshoot and Nisqually tribes along the I-5 corridor, plus the Port Gamble S’Klallam campus, and the Nez Perce campus in Idaho.

NWIC offers four bachelor’s degrees and eight associate’s degrees, in addition to several certificate programs.

The tribal governance and business management degree has become the most popular bachelor’s program on campus, and second only to the general direct transfer associate’s degree for most popular program in the entire school.

When Laural Ballew, who also chairs the program, started the degree, there wasn’t anything like it being offered anywhere else in the country.

Ballew drew from the existing separate associate’s degrees the school offered in business and tribal governance, and also from her own education at Evergreen State College, in which she got a master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis on tribal government.

After two years in development, Ballew launched the program in 2013, and it quickly became the most popular four-year program on campus.

“It was that well received,” Ballew said. “It really has evolved on its own and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Many of the students pursuing the degree are looking to climb in their career paths.

“A majority of our students are already working full-time,” Ballew said. “Many of them are already working with tribal government in some capacity.”

Getting a four-year degree opens doors for those students to advance into higher-paying jobs.

“It was made broad, to include all of the factors so a tribal member could gain this degree and go back to work in their selected field.”

A lot of tribal government is similar to any municipality, and can include leadership, education, healthcare and social services and law enforcement.

Students also learn the unique issues affecting tribal governments, including regulations around gaming, how state employment laws apply to tribal employees, policies around sovereignty, and the role of traditions and customs in government.

“It really allows our students to gain that skill and knowledge to be progressive and successful as administrators in their tribal community and business organizations,” Ballew said. To finish their degree, students spend their final two terms completing a capstone project, which includes research, a paper and presentation on a topic of their choosing.

Projects students have come up with include a software application that helps tribal fishermen track their business expenses, a business plan to sell a doll that speaks the Salish language, and a credit union based around tribal values.

Ballew is always looking at ways she can grow the program. NWIC has partnered with the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business to develop an upper-level economics course to add to the program.

“We’re, each year, evaluating areas that we can improve on,” Ballew said.

The accessibility of the degree is another factor in its popularity.

All classes in the degree are offered via telecourse.

“The teachers teach from a classroom here, or maybe at one of our sites,” Ballew said. “But they’re also teaching to a virtual classroom.”

The lectures are streamed live over the internet, and students attending any one of Northwest’s extension campuses can watch the lesson, and conference in to ask questions and participate in discussion via their webcam.

Offering courses this way solves a number of problems for the school.

NWIC doesn’t have the resources to offer every class at every one of its six campuses.

Also, NWIC’s students are older than the traditional university student.

Many of them work full time and have children or other responsibilities.

Offering telecourses is a way to allow students be flexible; they can take the course from anywhere, and lectures are recorded, so if they miss a class it’s easy to catch up.

It also opens up the program, so more students have the chance to take it.

“I even have one student who is attending from the East Coast,” Ballew said.

The tribal governance and business management program pioneered the telecourse model, but the school is now adopting it more widely.

“It was really to meet the needs of our working students and students who were at a campus site,” Ballew said. “It was really well received.”

The model also allows Ballew to draw from a wider pool of instructors to teach the class.

The program has three full-time faculty, and between five and six part-time faculty. Most are based on the main Lummi campus, but one teaches from the Muckleshoot campus, and another teaches entirely remotely from South Dakota.

Telecourses are one solution to meet the needs of students, within the constraints of the school’s resources.

But that’s just one step. And Ballew hopes the idea, as well as the ideas offered in the course, spread more widely.

“Maybe we can get more schools and institutions to take this and move it further,” Ballew said. “I hope it’s a starting place for other schools and businesses.”

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