Columns 2009

Here’s to education and dreams

In keeping with the warm and beautiful weather we’re having, I think today’s column will be about something positive. So clearly it will have nothing to do with Alaskan politics. Instead, we’re going to take a look at some bright spots on the educational scene to counterbalance the fairly dismal reports we receive whenever some group comes up to grade our school systems.

School districts in the Bush are usually singled out for their high drop out rates on these report cards. So I’m here to raise a “Huzzah” to an institution and a person who defied the odds and proved that with a little creativity, a lot of family and community support, and a determination second only to Lance Mackey’s, you can achieve any educational goal you set for yourself.

The institution in question is a tiny community college in Barrow called Ilisagvik College. It’s not only fully accredited as an independent educational institution but is also the only federally recognized Tribal College in the state.  Both achievements are outstanding if only for the amount of effort, time and determination that went into reaching those goals.

When the North Slope Borough was first formed in the early seventies, education was already a huge presence on the agenda of local people and politicians. The borough’s first mayor, Eben Hopson, Sr., was famously left on the beach by the BIA boat that came to Barrow once a year to pick up students and bring them to the lower 48 to continue their education. He was left because he was considered “uppity” for suggesting that Native people should not be used as free labor for the BIA and local churches. He had the audacity to suggest they should be compensated for their labor. Consequently, he was left to stand on that beach a very long time, unable to comprehend that the boat really wasn’t coming back for him.

So you can understand that education was a bee in his bonnet. And, as anyone who knew Eben knows, he was not at all shy about the need to deal with that bee at all costs. Creation of the borough school district was one of his first actions. But the Elders in Barrow wanted their children to go beyond high school in a local setting and saw no reason they couldn’t create a university right then and there.

That didn’t happen successfully for many years. But the dream never died and today Ilisagvik College holds annual commencement exercises that see local students receiving AA degrees, as well as a wide variety of certificates and GEDs. Many of the students are older people who could never go forward with their education when it meant leaving home because of family responsibilities.

Now they go to school down the road from their job or telecommute using programs that let them stay in their village while still reaching their educational goals.  It may not seem like much to city folk, but actually putting an accredited post secondary institution in a small hub village and having it work is huge.

Then there’s my friend. Let’s call her Sandra.  This year, she became a grandmother and a college graduate within a two-month span.  As she walked the carpet to pick up her baccalaureate degree at the Sullivan, I couldn’t help but remember the little 14-year-old Inupiat girl I’d first met who dared to dream big dreams – dreams that went way beyond the confines of her village. 

It took her a LONG time to get from there to here and receive that degree. Along the way she got married, raised a family, worked full time, traveled… but through it all she never stopped wanting the legitimacy that degree would confer on the work that she did. And now she has it.

Alaska’s Native peoples have a lot of problems to overcome. And sometimes it seems as though all we hear is the negative – the drinking, the abuse, the poverty. But there are bright lights out there and every once in a while we need to step back and acknowledge them. 

So once again, “huzzah” to Ilisagvik for making so many dreams come true. And to Sandra, for never letting her dream slip away.