When WalletHub announced its rankings of the best community colleges across the nation, many Americans may have been unfamiliar with its first-place choice, Leech Lake Tribal College (LLTC). Tucked away in northern Minnesota on the Leech Lake Ojibwe Indian reservation, LLTC’s recent ranking is part of a long history of success. The college was also voted as seventh in a list of the nation’s 50 best community colleges in 2010 by Washington Monthly.

Serving a student body of 200 students from the reservation and surrounding rural communities, LLTC’s interim president Pat Broker said the college’s success is grounded in delivering an education that is rooted in the long-standing Native American values of the community it serves.

“While we are celebrating we always are looking at how we can improve our college. We believe our success is rooted in our mission. It’s a simple mission: Leech Lake Tribal College provides quality higher education grounded in Anishinaabe values. We stick to that mission very closely,” Broker said.

Native faculty and staff teach and serve the students. “When education comes from the community, there is a passion for providing above and beyond service to the students. I have been working in education throughout my career and the common thread throughout every success story and research finding that exists involves relationship building,” Broker added.

The emphasis on relationships can be seen in everything LLTC does from the nine associate degree programs the college offers ranging from education, indigenous leadership, business management, and earth systems to the way the faculty and staff supports its students.

Because many of LLTC’s students are non-traditional students, they require different support to succeed. For example, Broker said the average student age is 29-30, meaning students are often also parents. “Many obstacles revolve around parenting and attending college so we look at our students holistically. We make it possible for them to bring their kids to class when they need to. In our Wellness Center we have a breastfeeding room and food and diapers.”

Because Native students living on a reservation often have economic barriers to attending, the college also works to overcome those. “We don’t have a transportation system, but we do try to connect people to others from their area for car-pooling. Many of our students arrive at school without having eaten breakfast because they don’t have money for food, so we have a food pantry. We also host a Monday Drum. This is a time for everyone at the college to hear announcements, give students a meal, and teach nutrition.” She said faculty and staff sponsor a healthy breakfast, serve the food, and students take home the leftovers.

At the Wellness Center “We offer a chance for people to sit and talk. Sometimes all a student needs is the chance to be heard and to feel less alone when they are struggling with something,” Broker said.

More than anything, what the college gives students is the message that there is opportunity for them, Broker said. “I look at the impact this college can have on our students and our community. Sometimes people come to us and don’t think they are college material, but someone nudged them to try. They come and learn and start to think, ‘Maybe I can do this!’ or discover they like learning, or think they could be a part of the research team.”

Kevin Locke, a LLTC alumnus, embodies the benefits of this philosophy. In his late 40s, homeless and struggling with addiction, he came to the college to find a better life. He credits LLTC with giving him the foundation of his language and culture, which in turn gave him pride and hope. Locke graduated with a degree in indigenous leadership and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree. Today he works with the Leech Lake Heritage Sites program, identifying and protecting historical cultural resources. In an interview for the college’s web site, he said without LLTC “I’d be dead. There’s no question about it.”

Students harvest Wild Rice.

Students use a traditional method to harvest wild rice.

Leech Lake Tribal College’s Basic Introduction to Anishinaabe Studies class, taught by Elaine Fleming, whom Broker described as “a legend in our area,” is an example of how culture and language are kept alive by the TCUs. Broker, who is taking the class herself alongside students this semester, says the class revolves around traditional storytelling and includes “the true history of Leech Lake area. We are learning, telling, and sharing our own story and not just what was written in a textbook. It’s important for the community and students to share information, build relationships, and be empowered to connect our history to their own lives to build a community and heal.”

At the spring graduation ceremonies many graduates, like Locke, shared that grounding their education in their Native identity and history helped them to connect their past with where they want to go in the future.

As inspiring as that was, Broker adds, “But it is important for us to give the students the message that if they want to make it, it’s their perseverance, their determination that will do that, and we are in a support role.”

Leech Lake Tribal College is one of 37 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) located in the United States on or near Indian reservations. TCUs are established by and for Indian tribes to provide higher education to Native people and to maintain community values and traditions. Tribal colleges and universities offer everything from certificate programs to associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees, and are located from the Midwest all the way to the Pacific Northwest. Because they are located on or near remote, rural Indian reservations, they also serve as an opportunity for affordable, easily accessible higher education in surrounding rural communities. Most TCUs also have dual-enrollment programs where local high school students can get high school and college credit through the tribal college.

Students can save money by taking college classes while in high school while also shortening the length of time they are in college, maximizing the benefit of financial aid they receive. Eninatig Willow Miller earned her associate degree in liberal education with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at LLTC while in high school—graduating with her college degree before she graduated from high school. Miller plans to attend Arizona State University to earn her bachelor’s degree in environmental science this fall and return to her community to work for her community in natural resources management.

Most TCUs also have agreements with nearby state universities, making higher education more accessible by giving their students expanded online study opportunities and a path to a higher degree. LLTC has an agreement with nearby Bemidji State University, which also has agreements with three other TCUs.