When Michaela LeCompte Talksabout started classes at Montana State University Billings, her third child was barely 1 year old. She remembers writing an essay with her child in her arms. They were both crying.
The 29-year-old graduating student has a lot of memories like that. Raising three kids alone while getting a degree in public relations doesn’t happen without four years’ worth of stories about fevers, essays, vomit and finishing her assignments with her kids on her lap.
“I just have to laugh about it,” she said. People often ask her how she manages it all, she said. Her answer is consistent: failure is not an option. LeCompte isn't going to school just for herself. She's going to school for her family.
Originally from the San Juan Islands in Washington, LeCompte moved around a lot. Her father is a criminal investigator with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The job took their family to different reservations in the United States, and she and her family moved to Billings in 2010.
Growing up, LeCompte struggled in school. She was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as a child, and often became frustrated when she couldn't grasp a subject as easily as other students.
By the time she finished high school, earning her GED, LeCompte had decided that education wasn’t for her. At 18 she enrolled at the University of Montana, but soon dropped out.
In 2012 she tried again at MSUB, while pregnant with her second child. She didn’t make it through the first semester.
“I thought all I was good at was being a mom. I wasn’t meant for anything else,” she said.
That mentality switched four years ago. She was newly separated from her husband and knew she had to make a choice to provide for her three children.
“For me that idea of turning to higher education was super scary, because I had always thought that I was going to fail,” she said. “But this time I did it different.”
The third time trying, inspired by her children, she began asking for help, something she used to dread doing in high school.
“Without my children I wouldn’t be here," LeCompte said. "I wouldn’t have the guts to say, ‘Hey, no, you need to explain this to me.’ I wouldn’t have the guts to let go of my pride and say, 'I need help, what can you do to help me?'”
She utilized services at MSUB, like disability services to accommodate her attention deficit disorder. She used the federal TriO program to help disadvantaged students as well as Student Support Services, and she began to ask individual professors for help. LeCompte began to academically succeed.
"I got the good feeling of what it meant getting good grades. That was a game-changer for me," she said.
Her classmates and professors took note.
"If she's struggling in the classroom, she's not afraid to ask for help," said Melissa Boehm, a professor and adviser to LeCompte. "She acknowledges that she can always do better, just like all of us can do better. It helps other students to see that with that growth mindset, the sky's the limit.”
Despite the success in her initial year at school, LeCompte still didn't have a major. People often told her she was good at talking, but she didn't know how to turn that into a career. Then an adviser suggested she take a communications class.
“I loved everything about it," she said. "I loved that we can utilize it in all parts of our lives. I use my degree already in my personal life, and when I’m dealing with my children’s school."
Through her communications major LeCompte, already learning self-advocacy, fell in love with advocacy for others. LeCompte said she learned how to listen and how to empathize with others' stories. Now, she wants to use her public relations major to advocate for others.
“When I first met her one of the things was that she wanted to make a difference and help people from Indian country,” Boehm said. “I thought that was a really powerful focus that she has had from the very beginning," Boehm added.
For the past semester she’s been the Native American Achievement Center intern, and helped organize on the university's march for missing and murdered indigenous women in April, and she’s helping put on the Line the Rims in Red event on Sunday.
Hundreds wearing red marched through Billings on Friday to raise awareness of missing and murdered Native people.
She also works in the summer for Movin’ On in Montana, and she works with Upward Bound, organizations that help disadvantaged students or students with learning disabilities get into secondary education.
Post-graduation LeCompte hopes to work for the BIA. Her goal is to work in public relations for the agency.
“We’re sad to see her go, but we’re very excited about the possibilities in her future,” Boehm said. “It has been an absolute pleasure to have her as a student.”
Through it all her children drove her to succeed, she said. Her 8-year-old daughter keeps asking her when she's graduating.
With finals done and graduation coming up LeCompte can't help but feel nostalgic for the school, the things she's learned and how she's grown.
"I felt like there were a lot of labels defining me my whole life, and I let them," she said. "Now I'm not scared about sharing my stories. I'm very very proud to be a single mom, where I used to feel it was a shameful thing. My perspective changed through school."
LeCompte is graduating cum laude in public relations from MSUB on Saturday. Commencement is at 10 a.m. at the MetraPark.