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ND college starts school year on a new campus

FORT YATES, N.D. (AP) – A local college is moving over to a brand new campus this year – one that cost $23 million and more than tripled its square footage.

The identity of the college might surprise people, because Koreen Ressler, vice president for academics at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, said that she sometimes comes upon Bismarck residents who don’t know the college even exists.

Not only does it exist, but this will be its first semester completely set in its new facility. The old campus will no longer be used in any capacity, not even for maintenance staff.

Made of natural-looking materials and almost entirely equipped with geothermal heat, the library has domed skylights and American Indian memorabilia throughout.

Students and faculty have gradually been moving over to the new buildings over the past few years, SBC President Laurel Vermillion said, but the permanent move is a “huge step for all of us.”

The old campus on Standing Rock Sioux tribal land, about an hour’s drive south of Bismarck, consisted of 23,000 square feet of leaky roofs and too-small classrooms.

“We called part of it ‘Bucket Hall’ as a joke, because we had buckets all the way down to catch the water when it rained,” Vermillion said.

After 12 years of applying for grants and building only what they had the money for – six buildings in six years – SBC now has 75,000 square feet of science and computer labs, office space, low-income student housing and classrooms – and not one leaky roof in sight.

Although that’s enough space for more than three times the number of students currently enrolled, students and administrators alike said they expect growth in coming years, so it made sense to be prepared.

“Our hope is that our students are going to start coming to us before they think about going everywhere else,” Vermillion said. “We don’t offer everything, but we offer a lot of basic two-year programs.”

SBC currently offers 19 associate’s degree programs as well as seven bachelor’s degree programs in fields such as business administration, education and environmental science – one of their most popular.

This fall, they’ll be adding a one semester certificate in wind turbine technology, in which students will actually build a wind turbine on campus. SBC will, in turn, be able to sell the energy back to Mor-Gran-Sou’s energy grid to help with its energy costs.

With the growing popularity of wind farms in North Dakota, and talk on Standing Rock of building one of their own, a work force with turbine knowledge could be invaluable, Ressler said.

Vermillion said they’ve started outreach programs to kids at local elementary and high schools for summer camps to get them excited about getting an education at SBC.

“There are still a lot of first-generation students, whose parents haven’t attended college, so to have them come in and see how up-to-date our labs are, I think will help bring awareness and get them passionate about the idea of coming to college,” she said. “It’s important for them to be excited about learning and give them new technology and wonderful, warm new environments.”

Even for current students, such as 28-year-old Audra Stonefish, who is currently halfway through a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, it’s all about setting an example for future learners.

As a single mother of two, Stonefish said showing her kids how important college is played a big role in her going back to school.

She’s a “huge advocate” of SBC and letting people know of the opportunities available there. “I can pretty much guarantee that SBC is only going to expand in the next few years.”

And even though SBC has achieved some big goals, there are more to come, such as adding more student housing and possibly a wellness center or sports facility of some kind.

“I’d like to see more student housing, especially for our young and single students,” Stonefish said. “Some students drive from an hour and a half away just to go to school here, and financially, that adds up. Living far away, those students, I definitely see them struggle more.”

Vermillion echoed that sentiment.

“Like all young people, they want to get out of the house, out from under mom and dad’s thumb,” she said. “If we don’t have dorms, that’s a part of the problem. We’re looking for some funding for that, but there’s not a big $5 million pot, so we’ll probably have to build it in small pieces.”

Vermillion said SBC’s Board of Trustees has been very careful over the years to only build what they can afford, what they’ve secured money for.

While that restricts how quickly they can put up new buildings, it also means SBC has remained completely debt-free at the end of it.

The one major challenge facing SBC, and most tribal colleges, Ressler said, is the ratio of male to female students.

On average, 70 percent of SBC’s student population is female – only 30 percent is male. Ressler said it’s the reason they’ve started pushing for more trades-oriented degrees and certificates, such as the upcoming wind turbine technology certificate.

“Our board is very interested in things that will entice males to come to school,” Ressler said. “They’re always looking more towards the trades. Right now we have a building trades program, and we’re actually hoping we can expand that into plumbing and electrical and masonry fields; those have always been a real push by a couple members of our Board of Trustees.”

Stonefish, however, said she hadn’t even noticed the discrepancy until it was pointed out.

“I had no idea. I just read those numbers in a recent report, and it took me by surprise,” she said. “Then I thought about it and actually, that’s pretty dead on. I’ve been in classes where it’s 10-to-one female to male.”

Even so, Vermillion said the first time she saw students sitting in the new classrooms, she knew it was all worth it.

“They were all smiling, and I said, ‘What do you think?’ and one said, ‘You know, I just can’t believe we’re in such a beautiful building. We just feel so special.’ That’s what it’s all about.”

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