Nestled on the banks of the Nushagak River lies the village of New Stuyahok with a population of 510. The village is on a hill with three main streets of houses and a school at the top. Chief Ivan Blunka School is home of the Eagles: student population 150. As you walk through the doors of the school, you are greeted with smiling faces and warm, kind generosity. Students there learn their core subjects: math, science, English, and history.
But, the experience of students in New Stuyahok is vastly different from any urban school. And, students there have a unique advantage: a group of dedicated elders that come to the school each and every day to help the students learn Yupik, help them to make toboggans, uluaqs, kuspuks, and most importantly, help them to understand and be proud of who they are and where they come from. The elders are there to integrate the past into the future and carry on the important Yupik values. They are dedicated to passing on their culture while realizing that the world they live in is changing.
For a week, five Anchorage students and a teacher had a once in a lifetime chance to experience their amazing model for education. As part of the Alaska Humanities Forum sponsored Rose Urban Rural Exchange program, students got to meet and form new relationships with people who live in a place they probably wouldn’t have visited.
To prepare students for this exchange, they first had to examine their own culture. Through digital storytelling, they looked at the way urban people get food, education, transportation, and health care. They looked at themselves and identified what is important to them and what they thought they couldn’t live without.
Students then each hosted a student from New Stuyahok in their homes for a week. They took their exchange students to classes with them, to their extracurricular activities, and shared their families and culture with their exchange students.
Hosting a student for a week was an eye opening experience, and the urban students started their metamorphosis on the spot. They realized as they walked through their own school with their exchange students that our culture is fast paced; they noticed that we talk really fast and are always in a hurry to get places. Some thought that maybe they should slow down a little and enjoy life and they started to appreciate everything they have in a new light.
Then the urban students got to travel. This was the first time any of the students had been to a village. Throughout the entire week, students were welcomed in the school and welcomed into homes and formed friendships with students in the village. They got a taste of the Yupik culture. As Krystian put it, “I wish we could have stayed longer, it felt like I only got the cream off the top of the milk, but not the milk itself.” The students adapted well to “village” life. They slowed down and took it all in by taking off their cultural lenses and jumping headfirst into a new culture. Morgan described one afternoon, “It was a slow afternoon but at the same time, it was nice to have a break from all the hustling around Anchorage.”
Students were surprised by the similarities between themselves and students in New Stuyahok. Camilla recalls, “I thought the kids there would be different but they weren’t. Kids there do the same things as us.” And Morgan added, “I noticed that they listened to the exact same music as I do. I always thought of music as a cultural thing, but I heard kids listen to everything from country to Eminem. I am starting to think that our cultures are more similar than I thought.” This realization for students was priceless. The realization that kids are the same no matter where they are from, and the openness of students to fully appreciate a different culture, has changed their life perspective.
Although students noticed similarities, they also commented on the differences. Sterling put it best with his observation:
“It’s the little things that make big differences. They go to school later, eat a little differently and use a little Yupik. Alone these things are not too different. One small difference was found in an unexpected place and it happened while I was playing Black Ops. In Anchorage, everyone plays a similar way, here they play the same game, but entirely different. They open different doors, and move differently.”
Another aspect of the week spent in New Stuyahok was about trying new things. Kids tried all kinds of different food from beaver to akutaq to boxed milk. Victoria had this experience, “I have been hesitant to eat cereal because it requires milk, and the milk doesn’t expire until September 2012. I decided I should probably taste it and what do you know, it tastes like back home.” It is surprising how stuck in their ways people are that they can be afraid to try new things like boxed milk, but this exchange helped pull students out of their comfort zone and make them more aware of things outside of themselves and their culture. Stepping out of their comfort zones and taking off their cultural lenses helped students come home with an open mind to life, people and differences in cultures and perspectives.
To truly understand another culture can’t be done through textbooks, nor can be taught by a teacher. It must be experienced first-hand to make a full and lasting impact. Each one of these students has said how this program has changed their lives. Through the connections and friendships they made, to the new eye-opening experiences they had, these kids will walk through life now with a new sense of themselves, a new sense of their life, and a new sense of their culture and its place in the world. Morgan said it best, “I noticed that things that used to be more important to me are less important. I have only listened to my ipod three times during the entire week. I could get used to it being like this.”