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Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College first of its kind in Minnesota to offer 4-year degree

Starting in January, students can earn a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. FDLTCC is the first two-year educational institute in Minnesota to earn approval for such a degree.

Nahin Gatica Cruz talks about his classes at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College
Nahin Gatica Cruz talks about his classes at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College on Oct. 12. Gatica Cruz will be in the new four-year elementary education program at FDLTCC.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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CLOQUET — Nahin Gatica Cruz was a teenager when he first heard he should be a teacher. A native Spanish speaker who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the early 2000s, Cruz said an English as a second language teacher suggested he consider the profession.

Years later, Gatica Cruz married his wife, Dyana Gatica Cruz, a science teacher who now works at Queen of Peace Catholic School in Cloquet.

A student walks on campus at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College
A student walks on campus at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet on Oct. 12.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“That has been my other influence,” he said with a chuckle earlier this month. Now, a few decades after that teacher’s suggestion, he’s on course to follow that path.

Green New Deal Housing is partnering with the college to offer the course to those in the building trades and anyone else interested.

Gatica Cruz, 36, is one of a handful of students at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College who are set to earn a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the school. The school is the first two-year educational institute in Minnesota to earn approval for a bachelor's degree.

“I believe that I have the potential to work with students,” he said, “and to make a great impact in their education.”
It’s the college’s first and only four-year degree, and one that school administrators say took years to launch.

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The program is open to anyone, but it aims to produce more educators who are American Indian — or at least familiar with American Indian culture and practices — in a state where white teachers vastly outnumber non-white ones even as the statewide student body grows more diverse.

A total of 123 graduates received their degrees during the college's first in-person commencement in two years.

“It’s really focused on increasing American Indian teachers,” Spoor said of the new degree program, “but … it’s also important for us to pull in those non-Indigenous students to become teacher educators because it’s important for them to know about cultures that are different than their own so that they have that really good understanding and foundation when they go into their classroom.”

Staff at the school announced the new major in September, and students like Gatica Cruz, who said he’s learning Ojibwemowin at FDLTCC, are set to begin classes under the new program in January. Gatica Cruz already has a pair of associate’s degrees — the second of which he received with a 4.0 grade-point average from the college last spring — but is set to polish off the baccalaureate degree in about 18 months, he said.

Nahin Gatica Cruz looks at his laptop while studying in the library at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College
Nahin Gatica Cruz looks at his laptop while studying in the library at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College on Oct. 12.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Even before it sported a bachelor’s program, the school has nonetheless been able to help churn out elementary educators like Gatica Cruz via agreements with schools such as Winona State University.

Former president Larry Anderson retired in 2018.

Students could earn an associate’s degree at FDLTCC, then transfer to Winona State to earn their bachelor’s degree. Despite technically being enrolled in a school a few hundred miles south, they’d take in-person classes from Winona State teachers at FDLTCC, Spoor said.

That arrangement has expired as the new, four-year degree ramps up.

The difference for prospective elementary teachers under the new arrangement is the emphasis on American Indian culture at FDLTCC, Spoor said.

Kim Spoor, the Dean of Education at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, smiles as she talks about the new four-year Elementary Education Bachelor's Degree program offered at FDLTCC
Kim Spoor, the dean of education at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, talks about the new four-year elementary education program.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“While we meet the Minnesota standards, the piece that’s missing from anywhere else is that deep dive into the culture,” she said. “That’s what makes us unique.”

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In 2003, Minnesota lawmakers and Minnesota State’s board of trustees approved a baccalaureate degree at the school.

It wasn’t until September 2021, though, that FDLTCC administrators got approval from the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, which oversees teacher licenses. The Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges in the Midwest and Southwest, followed suit in August.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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