PABLO – The opportunity to return to the reservation where he grew up, and lead what can be argued is the most successful tribal college in the nation, is “the chance of a lifetime” as far as Robert DePoe III is concerned.
DePoe always planned on coming back to the Flathead Indian Reservation, where he is an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, but – even as he enrolled at Southern Utah University to major in criminal justice nearly two decades ago – he figured he would do so as a tribal cop.
To get to come home to serve as president of Salish Kootenai College is a testament to the power of education, DePoe says. It opens doors.
His bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and a master’s degree in communications also earned at Southern Utah, helped open the president’s door at SKC for him last year.
It’s a message of opportunity DePoe is anxious to spread. Enrollment on the 140-acre Pablo campus, which topped more than 1,100 just a few years ago, has hovered around the 800 mark for two years now.
More students would mean more tuition money for the college, of course, but DePoe is sincere in his belief that it’s a win-win for both SKC and student.
DePoe’s first key to success recognizes that opportunities will cross everyone’s path, just like the SKC presidency did his, and it is up to individuals to prepare themselves to take advantage of those opportunities when they come along.
“For me, that goes back to education,” DePoe says.
Just a few months into his new job, DePoe has gone public with SKC’s first formal capital campaign, called “Capturing the Vision,” with a goal of raising $20 million over five years.
Begun before he arrived, “Capturing the Vision” got a good head start before he took it public, DePoe says, and since then it’s moved more than halfway to its goal with $10.4 million raised.
At his inauguration in November, he announced the creation of a new Center for Tribal Research and Education in Ecosystem Sciences, or TREES, designed to use models at SKC that help tribal students find internships that prepare them for employment, and expand it nationwide.
Other initiatives focus on enrolling more students – and keeping them around until they graduate.
“If you’re not retaining them, all you’re doing is recruiting them, you’re not doing your job,” DePoe says.
The tribal college is preparing to launch a media campaign – if there’s been a weakness at SKC, DePoe says, it’s been in how well the college promotes itself – and it will highlight the school’s strengths.
Those, he says, include its faculty and staff, its facilities and programs. Salish Kootenai College offers bachelor’s degrees in 15 fields, associate’s degrees in 38, and five certificate programs.
“One of our biggest strengths is our low class sizes,” DePoe goes on. “It helps our students be successful, the one-on-one time they get with their instructors here.”
It is not lost on DePoe, a 1993 Ronan High School graduate, that his was among the first generation of Native Americans to always know education beyond high school was readily available, without leaving their reservations, at tribal colleges.
DePoe was about 2 years old when SKC began in the humblest of ways, as a satellite school for Flathead Valley Community College that offered a handful of college credits to a handful of students in borrowed classrooms around the reservation.
Although he didn’t attend SKC – he initially enrolled at North Idaho College, which also offers criminal justice – DePoe drove past the college campus every day during his high school years, when he commuted between Polson and Ronan.
“I always knew … if I didn’t feel comfortable someplace else, I could always come back home and go to school,” he says.
What he didn’t figure on back then was that he could also come back and be the president of the college he was passing by.
Education gave him that opportunity, and DePoe wants the next generation to ponder the unseen possibilities college could open for them.