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College building new campus

FORT YATES, N.D. -- Staff at Sitting Bull College have christened a hallway strewn with wastebaskets catching drops from a leaky roof "Many Buckets Hall."...

FORT YATES, N.D. -- Staff at Sitting Bull College have christened a hallway strewn with wastebaskets catching drops from a leaky roof "Many Buckets Hall."

But the leaky roof has done more than inspire humor -- it gave the impetus for a $40 million drive to build a new campus for the tribal college serving Standing Rock Reservation, which straddles the border between North Dakota and South Dakota.

So far, the college has raised $10 million and has built a cultural center and 10 houses for students and staff. They are part of the first of three planned expansion phases. The first phase will include a new science building, multimedia classroom and faculty offices.

"We're hoping when it's opened we're going to have an enrollment of a thousand," said Sterling St. John, the college's development director. The college's current enrollment, 308 students, is a record.

The college opened 30 years ago, with just three full-time staff, in a retirement complex. Classes were offered through what was then Bismarck Junior College. Now there are more than 40 full-time teachers, administrators and other staff.

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Besides boosting enrollment, the college wants to do more to spur business development on the reservation, where unemployment ranges from 25 percent in summer and 65 percent in winter. Average family income is about $3,000 a year.

"There is really a need for business development," said Bob Gipp, a retired educator and longtime chairman of the college's board of trustees. "The Indians need to invest. We need to invest in ourselves. Indian-owned business is what we're after."

Besides offering business courses, the college is developing an entrepreneur program, including a "business incubator" that will provide office space and other support for fledgling enterprises.

John Anderson, a business consultant who teaches an entrepreneurship night course, said enrollment is running more than twice what was projected. Many plan to start small businesses, as diverse as arts and crafts, hardware, print shops, Web development, restaurants and print shops.

"Our interest seems to cover the whole gamut," Anderson said. "What's going to materialize, we don't know."

Dave Archambault teaches business administration, the college's largest program. It has 62 students in its two-year sequence and 17 pursuing four-year degrees through the auspices of a tribal college in Pine Ridge, S.D. He also runs a small "Pit Stop" convenience store.

The college, which is accredited to offer two-year degrees, is seeking accreditation to offer four-year degrees. Improvements brought by the expansion project have helped to boost the college's image, administrators said.

"At one point in time this college was considered a second-rate college by just about everybody," said college president Ron McNeil, a great-great-great grandnephew of the Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull.

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"I think the attitude's changed," he said. "We're seeing more and more students straight out of high school."

The new campus will have a more collegiate atmosphere than the current building, located next to the tribe's Head Start office, in a much smaller building than the reservation high school.

"So we're not a second-rate institution," McNeil said. "I think a new college will emphasize that in everybody's mind. Plus we're simply running out of space."

Linda Jones, a Native American studies major, is enrolled with the Catawba nation of South Carolina, and has attended other colleges, including schools that aren't tribally affiliated.

"Here it's culturally centered," she said. "The instructors are exceptionally qualified. I'm learning Native American studies from Native Americans."

Angela Goodhouse, now finishing her general studies, plans to focus on criminal justice. As a single mother of a 5-year-old daughter, she doubts she would be able to attend Bismarck State College or the University of Mary, both 56 miles away.

"The commute would be real bad for her," she said.

Like many teachers or administrators, St. John is an alumnus of Sitting Bull College. For a time he attended North Dakota State University, but had difficulty adjusting.

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"If we didn't have a tribal college on the reservation a lot of us wouldn't have the opportunity to attend college," St. John said. "It's culturally relevant. You kind of get that sense of belonging. When I went to NDSU, it was culture shock."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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