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Jessica Urbanec is the first four–year degree graduate of Northwest Indian College. Photo by Liz Jones.

Jessica Urbanec is the first four–year degree graduate of Northwest Indian College. Photo by Liz Jones.

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Tribal College Breaks New Ground

Liz Jones

Jessica Urbanec is an elder with the Lummi Tribe, near Bellingham. After her mom died of cancer, Jessica began to study the links between the environment, health and her culture. That led her to leave her home in Houston and return to the reservation where she was born to go to college. Today, the Northwest Indian College will award Jessica its very first degree in Native Environmental Science.


Jessica Urbanec jokes that she's a "baby elder" with the Lummi Tribe. She's only 57 years old. But she's no baby on campus at Northwest Indian College. She knows everyone. And she's clearly a mother hen to her younger classmates.

Urbanec: "You gonna stick with it? The four years good for you? Good going girl."

Jessica stops outside one of the school's portable classrooms. She hunches over what looks like a tangle of weeds.

Urbanec: "Now you're going to say what is this."

Jones: "Yeah, what is this?"

Urbanec: "Well hidden in here. It's already happened. They've already bloomed. This is camas. And down below here ... it's a tuber."

Jessica planted these tubers as one of her first projects here.

Urbanec: "Yeah, you see them now? Now that your eye is educated, well this used to be the traditional food of our people. We didn't eat potatoes."

That's another part of Jessica's role as elder — to learn about and pass on her tribe's culture.

For this project, she studied how these traditional plants grow with different water and soil conditions. And she approached the work from a perspective that combines Western science and native knowledge of the natural world.

This dual approach is exactly why Jessica picked this college on the Lummi reservation and its new program in Native Environmental Science.

Urbanec: "Because it is traditional. This college is traditional. It has my cultural values, my cultural beliefs which I grew up with. They're engrained in me. I did attend a mainstream college. I tried for a little bit and it's like, it's nice, but it's not the same. And it doesn't teach you with the same perspective."

Burns: "There's a dire need for Native graduates who are good scientists, know their community, know their culture and who they are."

That's Dan Burns. He's the Science Director at Northwest Indian College. He's been with the school almost since it started 25 years ago.

Burn's, who's non–native, has watched the school stumble and grow. It's gradually added more programs, more students and more Native American staff. But it still struggles to find qualified tribal people to teach here.

Burns: "You know I always thought my ultimate job is to replace myself. I always have that in the back of my mind and that's not a bad thing. The reality though is, especially in the sciences, is there's not a lot of native people with advanced degrees. So that's our mission."

The school's now a big step closer to that goal with its new Native Environmental Science program. Graduates, like Jessica, could eventually be good candidates for the science faculty. She's the only one who's completed the program, so far.

But enrollment is steadily going up. Some 30 students are currently in the program. Although odds are many will dropout.

Lisa Santana is the school's development director. She says the only about 30 to 35 percent of students graduate on time.

Santana: "When we found that statistic we were shocked as we looked through our numbers. But what we've found is that we have for many years now have quit calling them dropouts and started calling them "stopouts" because they come back to us. And the fact that many of our students come back months, years later tells us that they never really let go of their goal."

The school tries to keep the door open with "stopout" students and help them find a way back.

Lately, Santana has more students than ever to keep track of. The school's in the midst of a huge growth spurt. About 11–hundred students take classes at the main campus or at satellite locations on other reservations.

The Native Environmental Science program marks a major academic milestone. It's the school's first four–year degree program. The school hopes to add several more soon. It also plans to shift from a two–year to an accredited four–year university in the next few years.

Of course, Jessica's degree is a major milestone for her, too. She's dreamed of being a scientist since she got a chemistry kit as a kid. Instead, she became a data analyst at a children's hospital in Houston.

Then, her mom died of cancer. She'd always pleaded with Jessica to come home.

Urbanec: "She did. She never give up. And even at this age now – mom's been gone 10 years – I hear, 'Jessie come home, your people need you.' And my big response was, 'No mom, they don't need me. They're fine without me.' 'Jessie come home. Your people need you.' In all seriousness, that does ring now."

Jessica admits her mom was right. She feels right at home back on the "rez." Now, she hopes to find a science–based job with a local tribe.

Urbanec: "My dream job would be to be able to travel between the tribes and bring the knowledge that one has to the next one, or the experiences from one to another and put it in a science context so that everybody understands everybody's coastal perspective. We used to do that."

Jessica wants to help the college keep growing, too. She stays in touch with students who've "stoppedout" and encourages them to come back. And she'd love to land a teaching assistant (TA) or teaching job here down the road.

As we talk, the school latest expansion project grabs our attention.

A ground–breaking ceremony is getting underway for a new multimillion dollar student services center. We wander over past the new student dorms, and the new crosswalk.

Jessica thinks it's sort of silly to have a crosswalk on this remote, quiet reservation. But she admits, it's nice to see the school really starting to look like a modern campus.

Liz Jones, KUOW News.

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