Fowler helped build Menominee higher learning instituteBy:
Lee Pulaski, [email protected]
On her last day of work at the College of Menominee Nation, Verna Fowler still carried the weight of providing a quality education to her students.
When the college’s founder and president starts her retirement Friday, that burden will be lifted, and she will be free to do whatever she wants.
Don’t ask her what she wants to do once she’s retired, however. For the first time in decades, Fowler will have no itinerary.
“It’s supposed to be retirement. Why should I have to do anything?” Fowler said.
Pursuing new challenges might not be out of the question, as Fowler has made a habit of taking on difficult tasks. If she hadn’t, CMN might not exist today.
“When the Tribal Legislature asked me to develop a tribal college, my initial response was no,” Fowler said, noting that a lot of her educational experience came from leading parochial schools — Sacred Heart Catholic School in Shawano and St. Rose Catholic School in Clintonville.
When the tribe came knocking again, however, Fowler decided to accept the challenge, because she was able to see that the post-high school options for students on the reservation were limited.
“Kids were either looking at going into the military, working in the forest, or working at the mill,” Fowler said.
Fowler was hired to develop CMN in fall 1992, and she had a plan in place by the start of 1993. The issue was whether she could succeed. As she opened up enrollment for CMN’s initial classes — four in all — she was unsure about whether, like in “Field of Dreams,” if she built it they would come.
Fowler was pleasantly surprised, however, when almost 50 students registered for the spring 1993 semester. The majority of the students were not recent high school graduates, though; they were mostly adults with some life experience under their belts, usually heads of their household.
“It took about six or seven years before the younger students started to take notice,” Fowler said, noting that the initial classes of older adults had the side effect of those graduates encouraging their children to further their education through college.
Tribal colleges provide a benefit to students as they transition from high school to higher education, Fowler said. Students who spend their first two years at CMN have a 50 percent higher probability of graduating with a bachelor’s degree from a four-year university than those who go directly to a university, she said.
“If you graduate from here, your success at a university is almost guaranteed,” Fowler said.
She has never wavered from that belief, having heard from countless students who have gone to a university for a year or two and returned to the reservation more than $10,000 in debt. Choosing to go to a tribal college, where tuition is lower, gives students a chance to get more input from teachers than they get at universities, where some classes are held with several hundred students in a lecture hall, Fowler said.
“You hear so much about how costly it is to get into college, and the average student out of the UW System graduates with about $28,000 in debt,” she said. “I think people should be careful going after education loans, because parents don’t realize that when you co-sign that loan, and the students ignore it … they’ll come after you.”
When Fowler first started the college, which was the 29th tribal college in the country at the time, she had no first-hand knowledge of what it took to run a higher learning institution. She said she relied heavily on other tribal college leaders to give her the knowledge she needed to make CMN a success.
Diana Morris will serve as interim president when Fowler steps down but has not thrown her hat in the ring to hold the post permanently, according to a CMN press release. A date for appointing a permanent leader has not been determined by the college board of trustees.
In the 23 years she has operated the college, Fowler has transitioned from the newcomer needing input from others to being the mentor helping other aspiring college leaders.
“Tribal colleges are the most underfunded in the country,” Fowler said. “You can’t just sit back and wait for things to get done. I like to be at the table. I serve on boards. I serve on committees. That way, I know ahead of time what’s coming, and I can position myself.”
While many credit Fowler with giving Menominee children a better chance for future success, she says faculty members were responsible for many of the ideas that made CMN the success it is today.
“I believe that you should always hire people who are smarter than you, because they will be the ones to get things done,” Fowler said.
Fowler will leave the college with no regrets. She said it’s not because she hasn’t made mistakes or had some bumps or roadblocks on the path, but because she has never been the kind of person to look back.
“I don’t believe in looking back. I believe it’s better to look forward,” Fowler said.
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