Sandra Boham

Sandra Boham, President of Salish Kootenai College, Pablo, Montana.

DENVER, CO — The American Indian College Fund named Sandra Boham, President of Salish Kootenai College, Pablo, Montana, as its Tribal College and University Honoree of the Year. Boham was chosen for the award for her outstanding contributions to American Indian higher education. She will receive a $1,200 honorarium from the American Indian College Fund, which was sponsored by the Adolph Coors Foundation.

Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) serve remote reservation communities where residents would find earning a higher education to be difficult, if not impossible, without them, while also growing a pool of professionals in careers that tribal communities desperately need. 

Salish Kootenai College (SKC), located on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwest Montana, will provide a four-year nursing curriculum beginning in the fall of 2020, thanks to Boham and nursing department director Dr. Lisa Harmon. SKC is the first TCU to offer a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. Culturally responsive nursing training helps nurses give health care with better outcomes in their tribal communities, where people experience higher rates of health disparities. 

The recent outbreak of COVID19 illustrates how vital tribal colleges and curricula like SKC’s nursing program are to their communities. “2020 is the year of the nurse,” Boham said.

Boham’s career in education started with her role as an adult basic education teacher on her home reservation, born of her desire to work in the realm of social justice, knowing that education creates opportunities. But it wasn’t her first job that hooked her. Rather, it was her first experience with SKC as a student herself.

“I first became interested in higher education in high school because my parents didn’t go to college. They didn’t have the opportunity. My mom is from the reservation and dad is from Southeast Kentucky, where his path was going to be in the military or coal mining. He went into military. They both wanted me to go to college. In 1977 Salish Kootenai College started and was holding classes.”

“‘Let’s try this together and see what you think,’ my mom said. It started with taking night classes with her, and that got me excited about higher education,” Boham said.

Boham graduated from St. Ignatius High School in 1978. In the winter of 1979, while she was attending the University of Montana as a freshman, SKC was looking for someone to teach adult education classes. 

“I loved it because it served a social justice issue at the time: I was helping to increase the very low graduation rates in my community. We had a lot of students interested in getting their GEDs. For every student that was told college wasn’t for them and had barriers put in place, I felt by going into education I could help break down those barriers,” Boham said.

After working for the Tribal Work Experience Program (TWEP), Boham gained a wide array of experience learning about the tribal college from the ground up. She became the college’s registrar and the director of admissions. She also served as the assistant director of Upward Bound and Gear Up and worked in financial aid before pursuing other education career opportunities both outside of and in the state of Montana with a variety of learning communities. She worked at the Northern California Indian Development Council in Eureka, California where she taught Indian Studies at Humboldt State and the College of the Redwoods. She rounded out her education experience back in Montana serving students from K-12 as the Director of Indian Education for the Great Falls School District in Montana, and at the Department of Corrections as the Education Director for women.

After returning home to SKC, in 2013-14 she was named Academic Vice President and later Acting President in 2015, until she assumed the role of president in February 2016.

“When I was 19 or 20 years old, I might have said someday I want to be president, but I really wanted to be the director of student services. I really wanted to serve students. Over the course of my experience I found I was slowly putting together a foundation and was getting ready for this. But I don’t think you are ever ready. There is no training ground for presidents. The truth of the matter is that when they hired our President Robert DePoe, no way would I have imagined that he would have passed away in two years.”

“That was a tough time and after that turmoil, I became president in part to provide some stability at the college. I think my relationship to the college and being able to understand the school helped me. I learned a lot from Joe McDonald and Gerald Slater—they were responsible for creating SKC. In the early days there was no money and no funding, but they thought there should be a college and they made it happen. Gerry was a school counselor and Joe was a principal and had his doctorate in educational leadership. I learned about the goal of the TCUs and the mission of the institutions from Joe. That helped because TCUs are grounded in their role and mission,” Boham said.

Boham is looking forward to many challenges, such as creating a sustainable funding system, which is more important than ever as educated Natives are needed to ensure a strong Indian Country. “We have a foundation at SKC and we have worked to build that over the past few years, because as funding gets more difficult to obtain, I want to make sure there is a safety net to keep the college on solid ground. Sustainability and solvency are important, especially as colleges go through rising and declining enrollment which is somewhat cyclical. You don’t want to be driven by that.”

Boham also wants to launch an initiative to create affordable, safe housing for students. “The worse thing we want to hear is that students want to come to school but can’t find housing,” she said. The Hope Center’s national 2019 Tribal Colleges and Universities #RealCollege shows that 30% of TCU students were homeless 30 days prior to the survey, nearly double the rate for other college students.

Also on Boham’s list is expanding SKC’s curriculum to master’s degree programs. “We have offered to partner with other institutions to hold these programs at the college. Education and natural resources programs are most critical in our community.”

As she grows the college’s capacity, Boham said she continues to grow, thanks to the support of other TCU presidents. “I depend on fellow TCU presidents hugely…I am always asking questions. The TCU presidents are incredibly gracious. I meet quarterly with the Montana TCU President Association, but we correspond via email almost daily.” 

It is not just other presidents that give her support. Boham said, “There is no way you can be a TCU president without a dedicated team of faculty and staff. Without that it would be a tough job. I am lucky because of the team of people we work with here. We love our students and I am amazed every day by them and their dreams. I have no doubt that they will be solid leaders going forward. Our faculty and staff are always coming up with ideas and supporting each other with their learning as well as supporting me and my staff and our students. It takes all of us to succeed.”

About the American Indian College Fund—Founded in 1989, the American Indian College Fund has been the nation’s largest charity supporting Native higher education for 30 years. The College Fund believes “Education is the answer” and provided $7.72 million in scholarships to 3,900 American Indian students in 2018-19, with nearly 137,000 scholarships and community support totaling over $221.8 million since its inception. The College Fund also supports a variety of academic and support programs at the nation’s 35 accredited tribal colleges and universities, which are located on or near Indian reservations, ensuring students have the tools to graduate and succeed in their careers. The College Fund consistently receives top ratings from independent charity evaluators and is one of the nation’s top 100 charities named to the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. For more information about the American Indian College Fund, please visit www.collegefund.org.

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