The following article was originally written by Natasha Brennan for Tribal College Journal. It is shared here with permission.
As a student at Northwest Indian College (NWIC), Laural Ballew attended American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) meetings while working on her associate’s degree.
“Even though we were all from different tribal colleges and nations, we all had the same drive, ambitions, and dreams. We were being educated and given space to hold onto our culture. I got to see that at a national level thanks to AIHEC,” Ballew said.
After completing her program at NWIC, which only offered associate’s degrees at the time, she completed her bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University in 2002 and her master’s in public administration with a concentration in tribal governance from Evergreen State College. When she returned to NWIC as the director of finance, Ballew was later asked to lead the two-year business administration and entrepreneurship programs.
In 2010, NWIC was accredited to offer bachelor’s degrees. An NWIC survey found the community wanted the college’s two-year programs in tribal governance and business management (TGBM) to grow. In researching how to fill that need, Ballew learned there were certificates, two-year programs, and master’s programs for TGBM at other institutions—but not four-year degrees. With the help of her MPA mentor, the late Alan Parker, Ballew adapted Evergreen’s TGBM master’s curriculum into a four-year program at NWIC.
“I had so many students knocking down my door. I didn’t have to advertise. Students were anxious to be the first graduates. Using Evergreen’s curriculum meant our graduates were better prepared for master’s programs,” Ballew said.
In 2013, the Bachelor of Arts in Tribal Governance and Business Management program became the third of four bachelor’s degrees NWIC offers. Designed to develop the skills that support governance and business management in tribal communities and organizations, the program of study offers students the fundamental knowledge and experience necessary to succeed in the areas of leadership, sovereignty, economic development, entrepreneurship, and management.
“With funding in-part from the American Indian College Fund [AICF], NWIC was able to acquire 160 acres of land,” vice president of campus development and administration services Dave Oreiro said. “The college’s capital campaign, in collaboration with AICF through AIHEC, expanded the Lummi main campus’ facilities.”
By 2014, the 4,500 square-foot Kwina building became home to the college’s TGBM program. Despite having a new building, TGBM faculty knew the program—being geared toward working students with full-time jobs, entrepreneurs, and business leaders—had to be as accessible as possible. They developed online and hybrid courses, becoming the first four-year program at NWIC to offer them.
“My own story helped me to understand where our students were coming from,” Ballew said. “Juggling family, work, and school isn’t always easy.”
TGBM became a model for the school in developing its distance learning curriculum, which was in the works prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic hit, the program—which was ahead of its time in online offerings—was instrumental in preparing the school to become an accredited distance learning institution in 2020.
“Going into the pandemic, our faculty and staff were already prepared. That was unique and made our program favorable for working students,” Ballew said.
TGBM faculty and staff have worked to make the program affordable and offer exciting opportunities for students. The program is supported by an endowment with the college’s foundation, including a $1 million match and an additional $100,000 in scholarship awards from the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. The program works closely with the College Fund and tribal entities to develop career readiness and internship programming with the Lummi Nation, Intuit, Pyramid Communications, and White Swan Environmental. The program is also working to finalize an official partnership with the Bureau of Trust Fund Operations to support student career pathways with federal government roles that impact tribal nations.
To date, the Tribal Governance and Business Management Program has conferred 160 bachelor’s degrees. Over 40% of the college’s 370 bachelor’s graduates majored in TGBM.
“It goes to show that when you build something that the community wants, the community will help you build it up quickly. The program has great faculty and staff like TGBM department chair Brandon Morris. They know that every day a Native student walks into the classroom or through that virtual door is a success,” Ballew said.
In addition to her role as a member of NWIC’s board of trustees, Ballew serves as Western Washington University’s first executive director of American Indian, Alaska Native, and First Nations relations and tribal liaison to the president. She is working on her doctorate in Indigenous development and advancement from Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi in New Zealand.
“I’m fortunate to have insight into what it’s like to be a student, staff, and administrator. Being on the NWIC board has enabled me to attend AIHEC meetings like I did as a student. Only now I listen to the presidents and administrators who are experiencing the same challenges, relishing in our students’ success, and supporting each other toward bettering Indigenous higher education,” Ballew said. “I am excited to be celebrating 50 years of AIHEC and thankful for their support of Northwest Indian College as we celebrate our 40th year.”