GREAT FALLS — Oliver Main is most definitely a nontraditional student.
Yes, he is 30 years old, but it’s more the suit and tie he wears to class every day that set him apart.
“I’ve just been trying to manifest this kind of image toward what I’m trying to do,” he said with a laugh. “And it seems to be working. It has basically become kind of my daily attire… It just feels like I’m trending in the right direction.”
That wasn’t always the case.
Main dropped out of high school in New Mexico when he was 15 because “I thought I was being smart,” he said, again with a laugh.
“If I could go back and talk to myself, I’d say, “Stay in school.’” he said. “I just thought, ‘Everyone gets a job,’ and I got a job as soon as I was legally able to.”
Main worked at Pizza Hut for the next seven years and saw co-workers move up into management and make a living, he said, but he started to want more out of his life and started exploring getting his general equivalency diploma, but he said he didn’t get the support he was seeking while he was in New Mexico and the path seemed too lengthy, so he gave up on that idea for a time.
Main and his wife, Emillianna, moved up to Montana three years ago to be closer to family as well as to get “a change of scenery,” he said. “I needed to get out of the environment I was in.”
Main, who is an enrolled member of the Gros Ventre Tribe on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation east of Havre, has family here.
He is flourishing now, having graduated Great Falls College MSU and is now pursuing his bachelor’s in forensic psychology at the University of Providence after making use of the transfer agreement between the schools.
His journey hasn’t always been easy, but Main said it has been worth it.
After the move to Montana, he walked into the Career and College Readiness Center, which Great Falls Public Schools runs on Great Falls College MSU’s campus, to see about getting his HiSET, formerly called the general equivalency diploma.
“They were really, really great at the Career and College Readiness Center,” Main said. “They were very helpful. They fast-tracked me. They basically pulled me in and kicked me out.”
He paused again to laugh.
“Which was really nice. They got me where I needed to be. They pointed out my weaknesses, and we did it.”
Tammie Hickey, the director of the Career and College Readiness Center, said Main made a strong impression.
“Oliver moved very quickly through his equivalency exams and began the process to enroll in a degree program at
Great Falls College within a few short months,” she said. “Oliver has persisted through many adversities but has utilized supports along the way to help him stay focused on his goals of improving his and his family’s lives.”
The Mains had good reason to be on the fast track when moving to Montana. They were parents to a toddler and were looking to add to their family, and he wanted to provide better for them and set an example for his children to pursue their dreams. The Mains now have two sons: Myles, 5, and Alistair, 2.
Emillianna, like Oliver, is setting an example for their children as she is wrapping up prerequisites at Great Falls College to apply for the college’s registered nursing program.
“I think I’ll get in,” she said. “I am doing well in my classes”
The couple talk about setting a good example for Myles and Alistair.
“That is definitely part of the decision to come back to school,” he said. “I didn’t want them to think dropping out of school and just trying to find a job and becoming a cog in the wheel off society was smart. I want them to be individuals, find out what they like and chase it.”
The HiSET opened more doors for Main.
“I was able to get a job at Benefis (Health System),” he said. ”I was really struggling with deciding whether to go to school or go to work.”
So he did both, enrolling in classes at Great Falls College in the fall of 2019 while also working in food services at Benefis.
“It eventually became too much for me, and my mental health started to falter,” Main said. “I was always run down. I was always tired. Once I noticed my grades started to slip up a little bit, that’s when I decided I just gotta focus on this one thing: school.”
Main said when he started classes at Great Falls College, he was confused about where he was heading, but he was leaning toward studying criminal justice.
His first semester at the college in 2019, he enrolled in Dr. Elfie Neber’s introduction to psychology course as a prerequisite for criminal justice, and he said he found his passion in that class.
“I just fell in love with the class,” he said. “I fell in love with just everything about it, and I realized I could do a lot of good here with this field of study. And the classes have just resonated with me.”
Neber is still a big part of Main’s journey.
“I still think about her often,” Main said. ”She is my psychology mentor and the main reason I went into psychology. She is a great teacher.”
Like Hickey, it didn’t take Neber long to be impressed with Main’s drive and ambition.
“What struck me immediately about Oliver was his interest in the psychology, his engagement in class and his willingness to ask for help if he didn’t understand something or needed clarification,” she said. “I knew from the first time he introduced himself in my class that he was juggling work, school, as well as being a husband and parent, and yet he showed up to class and consistently did excellent work and was able to balance his responsibilities.”
Main is wrapping up his first semester just across the road from Great Falls College at the University of Providence, and he said both schools helped ease the transition.
Dr. Leanne Frost, executive director of instruction at Great Falls College, is pleased to hear that as it is a main goal for the college.
“Great Falls College is focused on meeting students’ needs and helping them achieve their goals,” she said. “For some students, that means starting at Great Falls College and then physically transferring to a four-year university to earn a bachelor’s degree. For others, that means starting at Great Falls College and then staying in Great Falls and completing a bachelor’s at the University of Providence or online through another institution. We provide lots of options to support students in their goals.”
Dr. Stephanie Erdmann, CEO/dean of Great Falls College, said having such a strong neighbor next door is a big win for students.
“Great Falls College MSU and the University of Providence have a long history of working closely together to create opportunities for students who live and work in Great Falls to earn their associate’s degree and, if they choose, their baccalaureate degrees right here in town,” she said. “This long-lasting partnership between the colleges provides members of the Great Falls community with higher education options for whatever their educational journey may be.”
Dr. Matthew Redinger, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Providence, also is enthusiastic about the neighborly partnership.
“Having an academic partner like Great Falls College is a tremendous advantage for students seeking their path in life. The University of Providence has enjoyed its relationship with Great Falls College, and we are enthusiastic about our ability to collaborate to help students meet their educational, professional and personal life goals,” he said.
Great Falls College and the University of Providence just recently signed articulation agreements, which help students by smoothing out the transfer process between schools, in business administration, psychology and criminal justice.
Main said Great Falls College prepared him well to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
“(The instructors) were all compassionate and understanding,” he said. “I’m a nontraditional student. I had a job. I have children. I have a wife. And sometimes things would pop up, and none of these teachers ever made me feel like a burden to them. That, I really appreciated.”
He has experienced more of the same at the University of Providence, which, he said, “blessed me with a scholarship” to make it possible for him to go there.
Main’s commitment to facing the challenges of combining life and his studies is clear to his professors at Providence.
“Truly successful students are not just ones who receive good grades, but ones who integrate their lives and education in such a way to transform themselves into something better, which requires a whole lot of courage,” said Ross DeForrest, assistant professor of psychology at Providence. “If I had to choose only one characteristic that best encapsulates Oliver, I would choose ‘courageous.’”
“They have been great,” Main said of his UP professors. “I was a little on the fence about going there because it’s a religious school, and I haven’t had the best experience with people who are really into their faith… But when I went there, everyone’s been really welcoming. I took a minute today (before a presentation he had in class) to thank them for being so welcoming. I mean, I’m a nontraditional student and the tattoos (he rolled up the sleeves of his three-piece suit to reveal some tats) and a lot of things, and people could look at me and think things, but they also appreciate the kind of work I put in because I work really hard.”
Redinger noted that “a welcoming atmosphere and inclusivity are hallmarks of Catholic universities, and contribute to the intellectual and personal development of our students. Having a partner like Great Falls College makes it so much easier to serve students like Oliver.”
At the University of Providence, Main has combined his original thought of criminal justice with his newfound passion for psychology as he pursues a degree with an emphasis in forensic psychology.
“I just got into the field to see what is out there,” Main said, “It is just a fun way to integrate psychology into my original thought of criminal justice, and I just wanted to see what’s in there.”
He also is taking classes that could lead to a degree in drug addictions counseling as he leaves the door open to more options.
Main is still very present at Great Falls College as he frequently visits to pick up Emillianna or participate in events such as the tepee raising for Native American Heritage Month.
He stands out in the ties, vests and suit pants, but those are just manifestations of the drive he and Emillianna have to provide and set good examples for their children.
“I’m just taking care of business,” he said.
Great Falls College Montana State University wrote this report.