Corrie Villegas is a 6’2″ basketball center known for shooting, so she’s familiar with the pivot and the turnaround shot.
But no one is more surprised than Villegas that she has recently executed an academic turnaround that has given her a shot at success in her personal and professional life.
As of December, when she received notice that she was accepted into the Montana Medical Laboratory Science Training Program, Villegas became the first Native American student accepted into the competitive program that produces certified medical laboratory scientists. Medical lab scientists are in short supply in Montana and elsewhere in the country, so admission virtually guarantees a good job to those who complete the year-long internship.
“I’m so excited and proud,” said Villegas, a member of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribe who is currently a student at Montana State University (MSU). “I’ve made a long trip of it, but I’m proud that I will be able to get a job that will take care of me and my daughter. And I’m doing something my daughter and my family can be proud of.”
At 26, it wouldn’t seem like Villegas’ trip could be that long. However, under any standard, it would be considered quite circuitous.
Villegas began her journey on her native Salish-Kootenai Reservation where she was born with an abundance of gifts. Vivacious with model-like beauty, Villegas was also a talented basketball player in a community absorbed in the game. Her skills caught the eye of Robin Selvig, University of Montana (UM) women’s basketball coach, who offered her a scholarship after her junior year at Polson High School.
“When you grow up in that part of the country, you dream about playing for Robin Selvig,” Villegas said.
Villegas played and then was red-shirted in her two years at UM. She said she enjoyed her experience there, will always be a Lady Griz (she still attends team reunions), but the draw of a now former boyfriend who played ball in South Dakota was strong. So, she left the storied Griz program for Si Tanka College, a tribal college in South Dakota, and a team at the other end of the spectrum.
As Villegas describes it, the college had fallen on hard economic times. There wasn’t electricity so classes were held outside. The basketball team turned out to be terrible.
Her luck changed after a game at which she scored 35 points (“I’m more of a shooter than a pure post,” she says), even though her team was getting clobbered by the University of Mary, located in Bismarck, North Dakota. When Si Tanka folded, Villegas heard from the University of Mary coaching staff and transferred there. She broke several University of Mary school records, scoring more than 1,000 points in her two-years at her second UM.
“I had an amazing career there,” she said. “It was an awesome school.”
She graduated with a degree in social and behavioral sciences and for a year worked as a drug and alcohol counselor. She also married and had a daughter, Jaden, who is now 2. Villegas said more than anything, the birth of her daughter was a wake-up call that it was time for her to grow up and focus.
“When you look at those most amazing eyes, you want to be the best person possible for that little human being,” Villegas said. “I wanted to be better for her.”
The way to do that was through education, Villegas was certain. But she was unsure what to study. She knew from her work as a drug and alcohol counselor that she liked the science of human behavior. So, she returned home to help coach a freshmen girls’ team on the reservation and began taking classes at Salish-Kootenai College, thinking that she might like to try pharmacy.
Another lucky break was when she enrolled in a class taught by Roger Dilts, who teaches cellular and molecular biology at the college. Dilts invited her to work in his lab on a project that is linked to MSU and funded by an INBRE Grant. Dilts, who has a doctorate from Washington State University, also is supported by a National Institute of Health RISE grant designed to get Native American students involved in research.
“The purpose of our program is that as students gain knowledge, they also develop a new peer group, social priorities and new career goals,” Dilts said. “They have to develop a new group of friends and our laboratories allow them to do that. Through the lab work, Corrie found a new home.”
“From the beginning, I loved being in the lab,” Villegas said. And in Dilts she also found a mentor whom she continues to trust.
“If it wouldn’t have been for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said.
Dilts knew of the Medical Laboratory Sciences program that is housed at MSU and thought it would be a good fit for Villegas.
“The program appealed to me because I needed something that would allow me to hold my own,” Villegas said.
Barbara Hudson, professor of microbiology and director of the Medical Laboratory Sciences program, sorted through Villegas’ varied transcripts, then suggested Villegas come down to MSU and take prerequisites.
“She’s proven herself,” Hudson said. “I’m pleased.”
Villegas said she worked tremendously hard to qualify for the rigorous program that only accepts 15 applicants from MSU, UM and MSU-Billings. She also continues to play on a traveling Native American women’s basketball team composed of players from throughout Montana and has worked at MSU’s American Indian Research Opportunities office as a student researcher. But her most important job is her daughter.
“Through all the obstacles that Corrie has dealt with in her life, her education has been both a center point and an anchor to focus her attention and energy, and a goal to accomplish to move her closer to her dream,” said friend Patty McGown, who is MSU’s director of Student Activities.
Next year will continue to be a challenge. Villegas’ class begins training in the summer on the MSU campus, then she will intern for two semesters at Benefis Hospital in Great Falls. Then, if she passes a national test (the Montana program’s pass rate has been 100 percent so far), she will be certified to go anywhere and work in a clinical laboratory. Villegas said one day she hopes to return to her reservation.
“When we go to hospitals, we don’t see Native American people there,” Villegas said. “I’d like to help change that.
“If anything, when I leave this world, I want to know that I helped better the opportunities for younger generations of Native Americans.”