An inspiring graduation story from Missoulian reporter Chelsi Moy:
During the five years that Frank Big Man attended the University of Montana, the 27-year-old guesses he failed 10 college classes.
The highest grade he received in physics after his third try was a D.
Big Man didn’t have an easy college career.
It wasn’t easy leaving his home on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and his Crow family. It wasn’t easy when his baby daughter was diagnosed with hip dysplasia, an abnormal formation of the hip socket, at 2 months old. As a patient with type 1 diabetes, it wasn’t always easy maintaining his blood sugar. Finances were never easy.
Countless times, Big Man thought about giving up. One time, he even tried. But with the support of university faculty and Big Man’s resilience and perseverance, he will accept his college diploma on Saturday.
Big Man is the first in his family to earn a college degree.
With one final left earlier this week, he watched as his 4-year-old daughter Mahala ran around the Payne Family Native American Center, happy and full of life.
The sight brought tears to his eyes.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about the little ones. I want to give them the tools that I never had.”
Big Man wants his daughters to see him in a cap and gown, accepting his diploma on Saturday. As they begin school in the coming years, he wants that memory to stick.
“I thought about giving up so many times,” he said. “I’m glad I stuck with it for them. So they can look up to me.”
Big Man took five years to earn a bachelor’s degree in community health at UM, after having fulfilled his general education requirements at Chief Dull Knife College, a two-year community college on his home reservation.
When he attended elementary school in Colstrip, he was placed in special education classes, though looking back, Big Man is not really sure why. It made him intimidated by other students, however, a feeling he never quite shook.
Growing up, no one ever talked with him about the importance of education.
Yet, he never doubted attending college. He was convinced a college degree was the path to good, high-paying jobs.
He liked exercise science and maintained a healthy lifestyle playing basketball. When he enrolled at UM, he declared his major as exercise science, but was unable to meet the rigor of the curriculum, especially the required science courses. He switched his major to community health and aims to get into the field of diabetes prevention.
Big Man had a large support system from faculty in the Health and Human Performance Department, as well as American Indian Student Services.
But his wife, Lea, was among his strongest supporters.
The family survived their daughter’s medical needs and numerous trips to the Shriners Hospital in Spokane. They survived Big Man’s temporary hospitalization when his blood sugar spiked.
The family also weathered the past couple of years with the help of food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Need Families, a federal subsidy program.
This fall, however, Big Man’s financial student assistance ran out at the same time as the family’s TANF funding.
He was six credits – two classes – short of graduation when he typed an email to academic adviser Blakely Brown, a nutrition and community health professor, thanking her for all of the support over the years. He had no money to pay for his last six credits. He had already pawned his bike – a gift from his father after his car broke down – for $100 to buy diapers for baby Mahlonie.
Maybe someday he would return to the university to complete his degree, but in the back of his head Big Man knew better.
“It was a real sad email to get,” said Brown, who still gets emotional thinking about it. Within five minutes, she was on the phone to the chair of the department and American Indian Student Services, trying to figure out ways to help Big Man afford six credits.
“He was so incredibly close and it would just take one more very big concerted effort to help Frank reach this goal,” Brown said.
American Indian Student Services came up with financial support and Brown found a way to pay Big Man in exchange for office work.
Scott Richter, chair of the Health and Human Performance Department, went down to the pawn shop where Big Man hocked his bike and bought it back. The department didn’t have any financial assistance to offer, Richter said, but it was something that he personally could do. After all, it was Big Man’s primary mode of transportation.
“When he walks across the stage (on Saturday), that will be one I treasure the most,” Richter said. “He had to overcome many things.”
Big Man is thankful for the support he received, though he was never good at asking for help, not financially or academically. He wanted to believe he could figure out things on his own.
That’s why Big Man doesn’t consider his journey particularly inspiring. He’s not proud of the work he’s accomplished because it was such a struggle. But others will tell you that Big Man has shown resilience in the face of hardships.
“I have more admiration for students in his situation who graduate against all odds, as opposed to those who enter with a national merit scholarship,” said Sharon O’Hare, director of UM’s Office of Student Success.
“He has stayed the course to meet his degree goals in spite of all these very significant barriers that came up along the way,” Brown said.
And now he has a new dream – to one day pursue a master’s degree. He hopes to find work around Missoula and to pay off student loans. In the end, he wants what’s best for his two daughters and to be able to provide for his family.
And if that means more school, then that’s what Big Man aims to do.