College always was part of Dominic Old Elk's "old man plan."
Old Elk, 49, had one year of college after graduating from Hardin High School then left to work for the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a firefighter and in programs for troubled youth like VisionQuest.
As he approached middle age, he knew he wanted a job where he could help others but would not have to climb mountains to do it, he jokes.
He graduated from Little Big Horn College in 2009 and enrolled at Montana State University Billings that fall.
With the exception of one early glitch with finances, things have gone smoothly, and his LBHC classes all transferred.
Everyone has been welcoming and friendly on campus in Billings, he said.
He lives in the dorms during the week and goes home to Hardin on weekends, where his wife and two young daughters live.
He'll graduate in December, earning both a bachelor's degree in human services and an associate degree in rehabilitative and related services. The two-year degree will help him become a licensed addiction counselor.
He plans to go on to get a master's degree, which he can do online.
Going to a tribal college was a good experience for him. As a young child, he spoke only Crow but then lost the language when he moved away from the reservation. Crow language classes at LBHC reconnected him to his culture.
The college also gave him confidence that he could handle university academics after transferring to Billings.
Another motivation has been the importance of education for his family, a tradition he's proud to carry on.
Going back to college not only will open a new career for him, it's helping his two daughters, aged 6 and 10, set their sights on college, too.
They've visited the campus several times and his oldest daughter already is talking about college.
Old Elk has a part-time job as a liaison between LBHC and MSU Billings, both to encourage more tribal college students to come to Billings and to help students once they come to campus with forms, deadlines and academic tutoring.
Why do some American Indian students leave before graduating?
Some students who don't do well academically, loose their Pell grants and have to drop out, he said.
The high debt some students wind up with also may put off others.
Tribal colleges discourage their students from taking out loans and do everything possible to find other ways to finance a student's way through school, he said.
Not only are many tribal college students eligible for federal Pell grants, but several national programs offer scholarships such as the American Indian College Fund and the Udall Foundation. Tribes also give higher education grants to their students. Scholarships are available to students who plan to go into specific fields, such as health, natural resources or agriculture.
The LBHC financial aid office is a stickler about students applying for every scholarship they qualify for.
"They hound you until you do your stuff," Old Elk said with a laugh.
Tuition also is less expensive at a tribal college. LBHC tuition is $2,400 for two semesters, compared with $5,470 for MSU Billings' four-year campus.
When students transfer to four-year schools, loans are easier to obtain and students may be tempted to take out large loans.
Old Elk is proud that he didn't have to take out a loan until this semester.
"It can be done," he said.
Old Elk encourages students to get work-study jobs instead of loans and to apply for scholarships.
When he first came to MSU Billings, he was amazed at the number of Native American students who hadn't applied for scholarships.
American Indian students attending Montana University System schools who demonstrate financial need are among several other groups of students who get a tuition waiver.
Even with financial help, the cost of books, living expenses and child care makes going to school expensive.
Although it's hard for Old Elk to be separated from his family while he finishes school, the hardships will pay off.
"Anything to improve your life is worth doing," he said.