Education is within reach for hundreds of western Montanans. Tuesday the University of Montana officially incorporated the Bitterroot College in Hamilton into its college education system.
“It's not about buildings, it's not about academic programs, it's about opening doors for people,” said UM President Royce Engstrom. “It’s about helping people realize their dreams through higher education.”
Engstrom is talking about folks like Hamilton resident Heather Green, who tells NBC Montana she grew up in the Bitterroot but moved when she felt she didn't have any opportunity to further her education.
“I was thinking about going to the university but I still had a kid at home. It just wasn't feasible, it was that obstacle,” she said.
Green says a two-hour round trip to Missoula, with high gas prices made some valley residents feel like a degree just wasn't worth it.
“Everybody has legitimate reasons not to go to the university,” Green said. “ (Bitterroot College) removes every obstacle and it’s inexpensive.”
The new approach to education shows that many more people need these practical and specialized degrees and the programs are really taking off.
“There are hand holders here,” chuckled Green. “I knew nothing about anything like financial aid or where to sit in a class or how to register but it's all done and it's done right here in Hamilton.”
Engstrom tells us renaming the Bitterroot College -- formerly known as Bitterroot College Programs -- and bringing in more educational programs and degree courses was the last of three steps. Previously the university has revamped the Helena College and Missoula College.
“Today was a big day of celebration because it really symbolizes this place is here to stay and we mean business when it comes to higher education,” said Engstrom.
With her associate’s degree under her belt, now Green plans to head to UM in Missoula to pursue a double major in forensic studies.
“It’s so much easier now. I wish I would have done it 20, 30 years ago seriously,” she said. “I’m just thrilled! The more we can offer people in the valley the better and it's just going to keep growing.”
Bitterroot College opened in 2009 with 25 people and now there are more than 200 people getting their degrees.
The college is adding four one-year college degree programs: building maintenance engineering, computer support specialist, medical receptionist and customer relations.
For more information on the Bitterroot College click here.