Today, the Montana Budget and Policy Center will hear from one Montanan and her story what tribal college means to her.
The tribal college on my reservation has impacted my life more than any other organization, which is ironic because I never planned on attending college. I grew up in St. Ignatius, just 20 miles south of Salish Kootenai College (SKC). During my senior year of high school I transferred to Two Eagle River School, our tribal school that literally borders SKC, and completed early. I was eager to get out on my own and experience life outside the reservation. But as many of us discover, life outside the rez isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I worked a couple of jobs but didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Luckily, my older sister enrolled me at SKC and told me to come home.
During my first year at SKC I had the opportunity to develop several basic academic and organizational skills, but I also learned what it meant to be a part of the SKC family. I got engaged to the student body president and we got married on campus in the Michel Building. Joe McDonald, the college president, emceed our wedding. Many of our guests were staff and faculty and many others were connected to the college in some way. We even lived on campus because my husband was the site manager for student housing. I felt support and love from the SKC family, which I was now a part of.
The next year I switched degree programs twice and we welcomed our first baby. I held a part-time job at the local travel agency and took classes that interested me, quickly discovering that I enjoyed and excelled in accounting. These classes helped me obtain a full-time job in the finance department at Mission Valley Power. Shortly thereafter, I completed my associate’s degree in general studies. Little did I know that this degree would open future job opportunities that would play a big role in changing our lives.
After the birth of our second child, I decided to put work and school on pause to focus on our family, which soon grew to four children. I stayed home with them for seven years, all the while living in student housing. My husband continued to work for the college and was also the women’s basketball coach. Living on campus and attending games and other events enabled me to remain active in the SKC family. My love and appreciation for the college continued to grow.
When I was ready to return to the workforce, my associate’s degree and the work experience I acquired because of my SKC classes helped me secure the payroll manager position for our tribe. The additional income made it possible for us to purchase our first home, a dream I wasn’t sure we would ever be able to realize. We moved out of student housing but were still very involved in the SKC family. In 2012, I applied for an open seat on the SKC Board of Directors. I am honored to be serving my second term and am currently the vice chair.
I strive to ensure that students find the same support and love that I did. I am forever indebted to SKC for lifting me up, leading me down a good path, strengthening my cultural knowledge, and always believing in me.
Presently, I am working full-time for our tribal housing authority. My position has afforded me the opportunity to finish what I started fifteen years ago. I have been attending SKC full-time for the past year and will be receiving my associate’s degree in business next month. I will continue at SKC until I earn my bachelor’s in business management. I will never stop being involved in and supporting tribal colleges because I know that they enable people like me to increase our overall quality of life by enabling us to access a broad-based education that allows us to obtain better jobs, helping to end cycles of poverty and dysfunction. They allow us to develop strong support networks that cultivate self-esteem and self-efficacy. Ultimately, they are a powerful and effective way for people to create a brighter future for themselves, their families, and our communities.
-Jody Perez is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. She is a past and current student at SKC and also serves as the Vice Chair on the SKC Board of Directors.