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Fort Belknap College president tackles array of challenges

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FORT BELKNAP, Mont. - At an age when many people are making retirement plans, Fort Belknap College President Carole Falcon-Chandler is just hitting her stride.

"I'm not ready to give it up," the 64-year-old administrator said. "We have a lot more work to do."

Falcon-Chandler, who was first hired as the college's dean of students in 1992, has seen the institution through both good times and bad. After several stints as acting president, Falcon-Chandler was appointed full-time president in January 2000; just one month after the school was placed on accreditation probation by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

She said the probation stemmed from FBC carrying nearly $1 million in construction debt, which the commission deemed to be too high. Falcon-Chandler, working with other tribal leaders, helped pull the school out of the red during the first quarter of 2000, but the period of financial stress also proved to be detrimental for attracting new grants, as well as recruiting new students.

"We had to work really hard to get back our reputation," she said. "You have to prove yourself. We were able to eliminate that debt and get our good standing back."

A main reason the debt was erased so quickly was because a $1.2 million construction grant awarded that year by the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co. Foundation was deemed eligible to be used against the past building obligations. Falcon-Chandler notes that the school's accreditation has since been reaffirmed three times since the probation was lifted.

But funding shortages and related high turnover of staff have at times continued to plague the school, even as enrollment and course offerings steadily increase. Nonetheless, Falcon-Chandler is confident that better times are in the making, and she offers high praise for the people she works with to make the operation a success.

"We've been through a lot of crisis here at the college," she explained. "In any business you tend to suffer when you lose people. If you get that right team of people, you're going to make it. I want to keep the staff that we have here now because they're so good. I think the morale is so high because I give them credit for they work they do, instead of always taking it for myself."

FBC, a member of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), was chartered by the Fort Belknap Community Council in 1984. The agricultural land-grant school, one of 34 tribally controlled higher education facilities in the United States, was previously a satellite campus of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe's Dull Knife Memorial College and a branch of the Flathead Indian Reservation's Salish Kootenai College.

Last year, about 500 full-time and part-time students attended FBC, which offers a broad array of coursework leading to associate of arts in business, business entrepreneurship, business health administration, early childhood education, elementary education, human services, liberal arts, Native American studies and microcomputer operations, as well as associate of science degrees in allied health and natural resources. FBC currently has seven full-time faculty members and a variety of part-time instructors and staff.

"We're so important to the economy," Falcon-Chandler noted. "There are so many people who can't afford to move away and go to college."

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The school also runs the only tribally owned public radio station in Montana, and has a growing program that includes varying levels of White Clay and Nakoda language classes and other cultural curricula. A $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a three-year, $375,000 grant from the federal administration for Native Americans are helping to pay for a new, 8,000-square-foot center for the Native studies program. A new science laboratory was financed in part through a U.S. Department of Defense facilities grant.

Falcon-Chandler said a lot of emphasis is being put on the cultural instruction because too many Gros Ventre and Assiniboine traditions have been lost.

"I want it here because a lot of our people don't know who they are," she explained. "If you don't know who you are, you won't be able to do anything."

Falcon-Chandler was born on the Fort Belknap Reservation in north central Montana and graduated from nearby Harlem High School before moving to Kansas to attend the former Haskell Institute, now known as Haskell Indian Nations University. After two years of studying in the business and secretarial programs, she graduated and signed on with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in

San Francisco.

While in the Bay Area, Falcon-Chandler also worked for the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army as an executive assistant to a group of generals at the Oakland Army Base, an experience that clearly broadened her cultural horizons.

"We were kind of all-nations there," she recalls. "We were black. We were Indian. We were Japanese. We were white."

She also met her husband - a military man, artist and member of the Fort Belknap Tribes - in California. After leaving the service, he was employed by Xerox Corp. in San Francisco, but the couple returned to the reservation whenever they could.

"One year we came back and he decided he wanted to move out of California," she said. So they packed their bags and relocated to eastern Montana, where Falcon-Chandler was hired as head of student support services at Dawson Community College in Glendive. She stayed there for 17 years before eventually accepting the Fort Belknap post.

Along with her many duties at FBC, Falcon-Chandler serves on the American Indian College Fund board of trustees and AIHEC's national advisory board for tribal colleges. She's fully convinced that education is the ticket to get Native peoples out of poverty and onto a better track in life.

"Down the road, if you don't have an education, you won't be able to do anything," she said enthusiastically. "The more educated people we have, the better people we have. We have been held back so long. To me, the whole thing is self-pride. Education makes you feel like a human being. It makes you feel like you can do anything."