'It's been a good journey': Jeanotte to retire from UND American Indian Student Services
GRAND FORKS — After more than 40 years at the University of North Dakota, Leigh Jeanotte, director of American Indian Student Services, is retiring at the end of June. As he considers the end of his career at the university, Jeanotte reflected last week on the beginning.
"I would say the first year that I was employed here, we probably went back to the reservation every weekend," said Jeanotte, who is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. He said his early days at the school were marked by a real fear that he was out of his element. "I used to think, 'What am I getting myself into? With all these bright, educated professors and other people, will I be able to fit in?' "
Not only did he fit, he stayed to help students find their own niche on campus. Soon enough, Jeanotte found himself as the leader of an advocacy center that at one time maintained almost 30 campus programs geared toward Native American studies and students from tribal communities across the country.
He first came to UND as an employee in 1972 when he was hired to work for the Northern Plains Indian Teaching Corps. He worked there for the better part of the 1970s until moving into the directorship of AISS, which was founded by legislative direction in 1971.
"What we typically say is that, when a student has any type of issue, they can come here first," Jeanotte said of the center. Though the employees at student services might refer a student to some other area of campus, he said AISS is built to consider the unique backgrounds of many Native students. As he himself can attest, it's "basically a huge transition" for such students to leave the reservation community.
"Coming to a major institution like UND, it's a culture shock for them," Jeanotte said.
The mission of AISS has always emphasized the recruitment and retention of Native American students at UND. The program also seeks to foster collaborations with tribal colleges.
Jeanotte described the AISS building on campus as a "home away from home" for students. His office reflects that intent, packed as it is with photos of loved ones, Native American cultural artifacts and various knickknacks that reflect his hobbies.
Keith Malaterre, AISS program coordinator and a UND graduate, described Jeanotte as a kind and humble leader with a genuine interest in helping students acclimate to campus, going so far as to help them with winter car trouble. Malaterre, who also is from Turtle Mountain and taught sixth-grade classes on the reservation for about a decade before coming to work at UND, said he frequented the AISS offices in his own days as a student.
"Leigh wants what's best for American Indians and he does what he can to achieve that," Malaterre said. He estimated about 75 percent of the approximately 500 UND students with some Native background will come through the AISS center during their time on campus.
'One of the best jobs in North Dakota'
Because of the wide reach of UND and the role of higher education in contemporary Native American life, Jeanotte sees the directorship position of AISS as one of the most important administrative roles in the state. After his departure this summer, the center will be directed on an interim basis by Linda Neuerburg, its current assistant director and a longtime employee.
UND has been home for decades to such Native-focused programs as Indians into Medicine, or INMED, and other professional initiatives for Native students. But as Jeanotte looks to the future, he worries the university's focus on Native American students is in decline.
Campuswide budget cuts last year caused the loss of the recruiter for AISS, an employee who focused specifically on bringing Native American students to Grand Forks. Though the school's general recruitment programs have picked up some of the slack, AISS leaders say the outreach to tribal communities isn't as strong as it used to be.
Jeanotte said the loss of as much as $110,000 in funding going into next year will trickle down to other AISS efforts on campus, such as the program's writing center.
"I fear we're losing sight of educating Native people," he said.
Given some of the unique challenges faced by Native American students, who are more likely to be affected by issues associated with historically underserved populations, Jeanotte said the funding hit is a tough load to carry. He believes the additional needs of the indigenous student community, plus their tendency to remain in North Dakota after graduation, are ample reason to for university leaders to make a "reaffirmation of commitment" to Native students.
Gavin Nadeau is one such student. Nadeau, the graduating president of the UND Indian Association, earned his associate degree from Turtle Mountain Community College before coming to Grand Forks for his bachelor's education. He recently was accepted to pursue his master's level education at UND and says Jeanotte was an inspiration to him to continue down his path in higher education and one day be a mentor to the next generation of students.
"I want to show them it's possible (to succeed in higher ed) and through positions like Leigh's, you can," Nadeau said. "It's important to have that figure, to have people that you can relate to in those positions. It helps motivate you to finish."
Given Jeanotte's role at the university and the length of time he's been a fixture on campus, he has built a wide network among midwestern Native American communities and has seen the work of UND's graduates along the way. He notes the presidents of four of North Dakota's five tribal colleges are graduates of UND, as are many of the leaders and administrators of the tribes themselves. Jeanotte says leaders of some of those colleges have already asked if he'd be interested in doing some work with them after leaving Grand Forks.
The prospect is appealing to him, but he says he plans to take it easy for at least a little while to start off his retirement. At 68, Jeanotte laughs when he says he doesn't feel his age.
In some ways, retirement seems to have snuck up on him. He still enjoys the work, particularly with the students who come to AISS.
"It's been a good journey for me," he said. "I can honestly say that I feel I have one of the best jobs in North Dakota for American Indian people."