Building a better Alaska one class at a time

President Jim Johnsen


Later this month, Fairbanks will welcome the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. The theme of this year’s gathering is “Good Government, Alaskan Driven,” which reflects a call to work together for a state government that is in service to the needs of all Alaskans. This theme also underscores the University of Alaska’s mission to empower Alaskans with the knowledge to lead our state.

AFN and the University of Alaska are united in the goal to build a state we all want. For UA this means teaching, research and public service. Programs such as the Alaska Native Science and EngineeringProgram and the Rural Alaska Honors Institute set Alaska Native students on the path for future success and create a strong pipeline of college-educated and workforce-ready youth.

President Jim Johnsen speaks to the Rural Alaska Honors Institute students during their studies skills class in 2019.

Alaska Native studies programs at all three universities — University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Southeast— provide an introduction to Alaska Native and Indigenous ways of knowing and seeing the world. Courses explore the diversity of cultures, politics, art and languages, and provide an in-depth perspective on traditional and contemporary Alaska Native society. Students from all walks of life take these classes to learn more about the unique contributions of Alaska Native cultures to our life together here in Alaska.

In 1983, UA and AFN leaders were concerned about the high dropout rate and the low number of rural and Alaska Native students who were completing college degrees. So we worked together to develop the Rural Alaska Honors Institute, a college bridge program, which helps Alaska Native and rural students transition academically and socially to college life. RAHI has prepared more than 1,950 students for the rigors of higher education. Graduates have gone on to obtain 929 degrees and 187 certificates.

This fall, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Department of Rural Student Services celebrates its 50th anniversary of providing a home away from home for Alaska Native and rural students. It’s a vital link between rural communities and UAF that provides an atmosphere that allows students to comfortably honor their traditions on campus. It’s also a gathering place for Native feasts offered in cooperation with the Alaska Native Studies Elders-in-Residence program.

University of Alaska graduates lead at all levels of state and tribal government. Many of these leaders earned a certificate or associate of applied science degree in tribal management through the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Rural and Community Development. The curriculum teaches effective management of tribal governments and rural community organizations. Students also develop practical skills in grant writing and management, conflict resolution, budget preparation, tribal finance and time management. Courses teach federal and state Indian law and how the law can be applied to protect tribal land, encourage natural resource development and build practical advocacy skills. The tribal management curriculum provides a strong foundation for a bachelor’s or master’s degree from UAF’s Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development.

Likewise, Indigenous languages are at the foundation of Alaska Native cultural practices, well-being, knowledge and worldviews. Each of our universities offers regional language classes. The Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is internationally known and recognized as the major center in the United States for the study of Alaska’s indigenous languages. Since 1972, the center’s researchers and language specialists have worked together to deliver language programs, to write and publish reference works, and to archive the contributions of Alaska Native language experts.

It takes a great university to build a great state. This year’s convention theme underscores that unchanging truth. In these challenging times, we need to work together to develop long-term and balanced solutions rooted in the unique cultures and needs of our state and its Indigenous cultures. Welcome to everyone associated with AFN, and thank you for sharing with the University of Alaska the opportunity to tackle tough questions and work together to build a greater university and a better Alaska.

* This piece was orginally published as a Community Perspective in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.