Clark Sisler was in his late 40s, severely injured and unemployed with a family to support when he decided to enroll at Bitterroot College in 2010. By his own admission, it was misfortune that drove him to college after not having set foot in a traditional classroom for nearly three decades.

“It’s kind of a funny story, but I busted my leg in three places and I couldn’t work my dead-end job anymore,” said Sisler, who was working as an appliance delivery and installation technician when he suffered his injury. “I was working for minimum wage, I had worked construction for most of my life, and I had a family. I didn’t have anything saved up for retirement. So I decided to apply for the respiratory care program in Missoula, and I found out I could take all my prerequisites, like anatomy and physiology, here in Hamilton.”

On Friday afternoon, Sisler will graduate and deliver the commencement address for the Bitterroot College Class of 2013, the two-year college’s second class of graduates since opening in 2009. The ceremony will be at the Bedford Building in Hamilton at 4:30 p.m.

Sisler, who is a U.S. Army veteran, will deliver a speech on two things he says helped turn his fortunes around: effort and attitude.

“You can have the right effort, or enough effort, but without the right attitude you aren’t going to get very far,” he said. “Or you can have the right attitude, but without effort you aren’t going to get very far. You have to have a combination of both if you want to succeed.”

There are approximately 17,000 adults who lack a college education in the Bitterroot Valley, according to research by the college, and Sisler said he hopes that number falls.

“I come from a generation where if you needed a job, you could just walk down the street and get a job,” he said. “But these days, you have to have a college education if you want to get quality employment. And the Bitterroot College provides that opportunity for people here in the valley. We just need the facilities and supplies to keep up with the increasing demand.”

When Sisler began attending classes at Bitterroot College in 2010, the institution consisted of just two small classrooms, a card table, and a lockbox for receipts, he recalled.

Since then, the college has completed a 3,300-square-foot expansion, and enrollment has more than doubled to about 300 students.

“I’ve seen it transform since I’ve been there,” he said. “The college had started six months before I got here. It’s grown exponentially.”

Academic adviser Kathleen O’Leary said 17 students will graduate on Friday with their two-year Associate of Arts degrees. Six more students will be honored for taking as many classes at BC for their degree at Missoula College.

“We are also going to celebrate 15 farewells to students who have completed as much as they can here and are moving on to their specific degree,” O’Leary explained. “For example, elementary education is one of the degrees that we can’t complete here. We send them on to other colleges.”

Bitterroot College also has about 20 honor students who were invited into the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and several students who have received scholarships.

Sisler said he was a little bit nervous after returning to college after such a long hiatus.

“I graduated high school in 1983, way back in the pre-millenia,” he laughed. “I did do some technical training. I got my metallurgy degree for welding, but the economy tanked so I wasn’t able to utilize that. From 1987-’89, I was a combat field medic in the Army, and I set up dispensary units for returning G.I.s and their families, and set up some M.A.S.H. units.”

Sisler feels it is doubtful he would be getting a college degree if there wasn’t a college campus located in the Bitterroot Valley.

“I thought it was great that I had an opportunity to take courses here instead of commuting to Missoula,” he said.

Clark has become involved in advocating for many groups at Bitterroot College, including veterans.

He said that he is incredibly excited to get his degree on Friday, and he knows the secret to giving a great commencement address.

“I’m going to make it short and sweet, and let people get to the cake,” he said.

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

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