Bitterroot College has been a presence of educational opportunity in the Bitterroot Valley for a decade now.
Kathleen O’Leary, the college’s director of Academic & Student Affairs, said the school is a resource for the community and has had a big impact on the citizens.
“It works to come here,” O’Leary said. “You can get your AA but people have done more than that. This is a launching point for a career.”
The college began in 2009 in a single classroom at the Carriage House in Hamilton by the BPC Steering Committee. In 2012, the Montana Board of Regents voted to rename the BCP the Bitterroot College University of Montana.
After the Carriage House, the college spent several years in the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority incubator building on Old Corvallis Road. From there, the Bitterroot College moved to its own campus on west Main Street in 2015.
Bitterroot College University of Montana now offers college credits, workforce training programs, and continuing education courses. It also houses the “Fab Lab” – Fabrication Laboratory with director John Springer.
O’Leary said many students have come through the Bitterroot College in the past decade and have gone on to have a positive impact in the community.
Hamilton Norco employees Sam Allred and Rachelle Leete are respiratory technicians who started at Bitterroot College.
In 2008, Allred, then 40, had been in construction his whole life when the bottom fell out of the construction market.
“I thought ‘If I’m ever going to do something else, now is the time to do it,’” Allred said. “I started close to home and got my general ed stuff out of the way and got into a program. Kathleen and Tory (Director Victoria Clark) were both incredibly helpful.”
Allred received a Ryan Foundation loan that helped him earn 28 credits – all of his prerequisites. Then he was accepted into the Missoula College’s Respiratory Therapy program.
“It was huge getting that first year out of the way without all of that commuting,” he said. “Bitterroot College was wonderful. We took the hard classes that have to be done for medical education in a little classroom setting while teleconferencing huge classes in Missoula.”
Leete was in her mid-twenties when she decided to find a career.
“I had a job where I liked what I was doing but it wasn’t going to go anywhere financially,” she said. “I researched jobs and avenues to take.”
She chose to follow her uncle’s footsteps – he is head of the respiratory department at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital.
“I shadowed and decided it would be good for me,” Leete said.
She weighed her options of quitting her job and commuting, incurring travel costs, or the higher expenses of living in Missoula. Then she found out about the Bitterroot College and attended part-time while continuing to work at her job in Hamilton.
“I took college more slowly and did all my prerequisites down here,” Leete said. “It allowed me to continue life as usual and start building my future. I appreciate that the more intimidating classes like anatomy and physiology were smaller classes with more help available.”
Lee recommends high school graduates take their prerequisites at Bitterroot College.
“You save so much time and money making it affordable,” she said.
Like Allred, Leete also graduated from Missoula College’s Respiratory Therapy program. Both enjoy their job at Norco and are valued employees.
Allred is encouraging his daughter to attend Bitterroot College.
“Much of the time kids spin their wheels right out of high school so being here, staying at home with your family, and keeping the job you have while you figure out what you want is much smarter,” Allred said. “There is a wide variety of classes and the prerequisites they offer are the same and this is a much smarter way to go instead of diving in head first.”
Leete agreed and said college debt can be staggering for students are parents.
“It can be difficult for families so doing it where students can stay closer to home and having it be more affordable is huge,” Leete said. “Bitterroot College is great for traditional and non-traditional students. You can even just take a class of what you’re interested in learning on the side. Bitterroot College is amazing and it’s great to have it here in this area.”
O’Leary said she wants to inspire more people to take classes at Bitterroot College.
“It is truly a resource in the community and I want people to see that,” she said. “If they want an enrichment course like quick books, we have that. We can help them build on current skills or learn a whole new set of skills through the workforce development courses or go to college – we have it all.”