St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin
United Tribes Technical College
We had the opportunity to catch up with tribal college alumnus Russell Swagger, the Vice President of Student and Campus Services at his alma mater, United Tribes Technical College (UTTC), in Bismarck, North Dakota. Russell, an enrolled member of the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, works with 20 departments and 130 employees to provide services to more than 1,200 students at the school.
Russell earned a bachelor’s of science degree in criminal justice from Minot State University and a master’s degree in management from the University of Mary. He began his education journey at UTTC. He later earned his Ph.D. through the Mellon Foundation Faculty Career Enhancement (Doctoral) Fellowship from the American Indian College Fund. He credits his tribal leaders, family and friends for their support as he made a geographic change in his life to be among other Indian people.
“I’m very honored and privileged to have graduated from United Tribes Technical College with an associate’s degree of applied science degree in criminal justice,” Russell says. “I owe much to my tribe, my family, faculty and staff and the tribal college leaders for my success. Tribal colleges offer a great deal of support. The support not only comes from formal programs and through staff and faculty, it also comes from administrators, other tribal colleges, tribal nations and leaders, and from fellow students.”
Russell says attending a tribal college may have saved his life. Drugs and alcohol are coping devices that are often seen as a struggle among Native youth, and was no exception. He struggled as these negative influences of dealing with adversity led him down the wrong road. He says his “perception of life prior to tribal colleges was hopelessness. Although I had much support from my family, friends and tribe, I always felt like I couldn’t break the chains of poverty and be more. I wanted to offer more and become more, but I didn’t know how. Tribal colleges and especially the people that work for them believe in their students. They also believe we all have value. It is this belief that motivates and encourages our students to believe in and demand more of themselves. Tribal colleges changed my perception of my life. Now, I look forward to waking every day, greeting our Creator, giving thanks, and feel blessed to work with and serve our Native American people.”
Russell believes that UTTC succeeds with helping students experiencing difficult challenges in their lives through the support systems they have set up. Many of UTTC's employees are UTTC or tribal college alumni and add to the Native staff that can relate to students and their experiences. He notes that the staff are highly educated, credentialed and trained to provide these services to students. “We also provide ceremonial and spiritual activities and we seek advice from our elders on campus and in our local tribal communities to help us address these issues,” he says. “Many of our students have managed to live with deep-rooted and traumatic experiences. We value every student and we know they have a unique and special gift to offer.”
As an alumnus of mainstream colleges and universities, Russell believes there’s something about the essence of feeling like you are at home among tribal colleges. “Even if I go to another tribal college or visit with other students or employees from other tribal colleges, I feel as though I’m welcomed and at home (like family). The reason Native culture is at the forefront is because tribal college leaders always make sure it is and that we never forget our powerful history,” Russell says.
Recently, the American Council on Education (A.C.E.) selected Russell, along with 25 others in underrepresented populations, to participate in their first Executive Leadership cohort. The program is designed to prepare leaders to assume college president positions. The cohort will participate in an eight-month program that will examine leadership skills and create a professional development plan aimed at increasing knowledge and skills to prepare them to assume the demands and responsibilities of a college president. Russell will receive feedback from people he works with currently, cohort colleagues, and sitting and retired college presidents. The goal is to bring valuable knowledge back to UTTC and other tribal colleges and to prepare Russell to be of greater service to the Native higher education community. He will also have an opportunity to share the tribal college experience from varying viewpoints with A.C.E. and his cohort of professionals.