CASS LAKE -- Leech Lake Tribal College will soon expand its campus by one building -- through the work of its carpentry and residential building students.

In the wake of COVID-19, a lack of space to spread out caused some of LLTC’s hands-on programs -- such as carpentry and integrated residential building -- to struggle, as many are not feasible to teach online.

However, as recent recipients of a $150,000 grant from the American Indian College Fund, the school has a solution to help with student retention and persistence during COVID-19.

According to LLTC President Raymond Burns the plan is to give upcoming carpentry students a new space to work year-round while being able to gain hands-on experience.

“We came across the grant and thought, ‘okay, this is a great opportunity, why not turn it into a double opportunity?’” Burns said. “It’s an actual construction project from start to finish that the students will be participating in. We will be killing two birds with one stone -- at the end, we’ll have a space where we can have the carpentry program continuing, but throughout the whole time we have the students having an incredibly valuable learning experience that they probably wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

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The building project is titled “Giwaakaaigemin” -- “we build” in English -- and once completed, will be a 40-foot by 100-foot learning space.

‘We needed a space’

When LLTC employees learned of the grant opportunity, the college’s construction-related programs immediately came to mind. LLTC Director of Assessment and Institutional Research Helen Zaikina-Montgomery and Carpentry Instructor Rocky Carpenter collaborated on the grant application and initial project idea.

“In the case of Leech Lake Tribal College, one of the programs that was heavily impacted was our integrated residential builder program,” Zaikina-Montgomery explained. “A lot of the students who want to build stuff, want to build stuff with their hands. When they weren’t able to attend school in the classroom, I think that really impacted our program.”

Carpenter agreed, “We suffered a decrease in our enrollment based on the fact that we had to switch to some online components and then some hybrid courses, which is what we offer right now.”

What they needed was a building -- a place where students could learn, while being able to safely spread out.

“When we thought about how the college would need that money the most, we thought about the IRB (integrated residential builder) program and we thought ‘you know, why are students hesitant to come back to this program or attend classes?’ and it was because we didn’t have space to safely separate students while they were making things and so what we identified as a need was a building,” Zaikina-Montgomery continued. “We needed a space.”

Project timeline

LLTC’s winter/spring semester classes began on Jan. 11, and from now until the end of summer, students enrolled in the school’s carpentry and integrated residential builder programs will be deeply involved in the project.

While the weather is still cold, students will spend time planning and designing, going through the budgeting and permit processes for the new building. Students will also listen to speakers from the community explain how COVID-19 has affected their construction businesses.

“How does a person go from a patch of grass, from permitting to implementing the design phase, to actually building the structure?” Carpenter said was the focal question.

In the late spring and summer, students and community members will begin the actual construction of the new building, with the hope of completing it by the end of the summer.

“The main kind of underpinning of the curriculum is this project, so the students in the first semester which we just started, they will be doing a lot of the designing and planning of building this structure,” Carpenter explained. “These same students will participate in the foundation, how to gather permits, estimates, with the COVID considerations, and then we’ll actually be building it in the spring.”

This will be the first new building at LLTC since the opening of the $2.7 million community Bezhigoogahbow Library in 2015, named after the LLTC founder and first President, Larry P. Aitken. The Leech Lake Tribal Council first established LLTC in July 1990.

Carpenter said she hopes 15-20 students will enroll in the program. Students can enroll through Jan. 15 for the winter/spring semester, and then again starting in April for the summer semester if they wish to be a part of this project. The summer session begins on May 24.

“I believe we have six women in the classes right now -- that’s a record for us. Usually, it’s one or two but six is quite amazing,” Carpenter said. “It’s a unique opportunity for students to get in on all phases of constructing any building -- it could apply to a house, a commercial building -- the applications go across the board.”

She added that there are a lot of grants available, some specifically for women from the Northwest Indian Community Development Center, to help students feel supported on their educational journeys.

A source of pride and inspiration

The new space will provide room for students to spread out, and opportunities for carpentry students to continue their work indoors when the weather isn’t cooperating -- but that’s not all.

Zaikina-Montgomery mentioned that after the need for students to spread out is over, the building could also be used to house cultural celebrations, community events and LLTC commencement.

“Historically speaking, I don’t know that the college has ever held graduation ceremonies at the college -- so that would be a space too, where we could use that space for graduation ceremonies, for cultural events or college events,” Zaikina-Montgomery said.

Carpenter, Montgomery and Burns all said that they hope this building will serve as a source of student pride and inspiration.

“It allows students to do something very constructive and focused that they know will have a direct impact on the future of the program,” Burns said. “At the end of this, there is going to be these very nice building students can point to and say, ‘I helped build that.’”

Community members and students who are interested in participating in this project are encouraged to register for LLTC’s spring semester and enroll in the carpentry program. Contact Carpenter at or (218) 766-4925 for more information.