‘Not one size fits all’: University of Alaska looks for ways to retain more Alaska Native students

SStudents work on a box
ANSEP Academy students have to wear masks and gloves when operating the heat lamps and using various materials. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

The University of Alaska system is launching a systemwide program geared toward retaining more Alaska Native students and increasing the number of Alaska Native staff members.

UA recently found that Alaska Native students are enrolling, but don’t always stay.

Sarah Peele, whose Haida name is Tukshaak’éi, is a student at University of Alaska Southeast. She transferred from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she said professors didn’t make her feel welcome.

Sarah Peele, whose Haida name is Tukshaak’éi, is a student at University of Alaska Southeast.
Sarah Peele, whose Haida name is Tukshaak’éi, is a student at University of Alaska Southeast. (Sarah Peele)

“They were all white,” Peele said. “They were not originally from Alaska. They were from Lower 48 or a different country and they had little to no knowledge of whose land they were on and they did not care when I brought that up in our classrooms.”

While being interviewed over Zoom, Peele bounced a seven-month-old boy on her lap. She said that’s another thing about her culture that her professors don’t always understand. 

“A lot of Alaska Native students are not traditional students, meaning they’re not right out of high school, they’re not single, a lot of them have kids,” Peele said.

Her experience at the Juneau campus has been an improvement, but there could be other reasons for that, she said.

“I’ve primarily switched to Alaska Native Studies and Languages, so all of my professors are Alaska Native and I’ve kind of retreated into this little safe space,” she said.

In the past, Peele was often the only Alaska Native student in her classes, and more often, the only Alaska Native woman in her classes. She said that was intimidating, and experiences like that could be contributing to lack of retention for students like her. That’s part of the reason why she decided to help get the Alaska Native Success Initiative off the ground at UAS.

UAS Chancellor Karen Carey. (University of Alaska Southeast)

“I’m thankful that the chancellor and a couple other non-Alaska Native people who were on that committee were open to change and open to recognizing how they’re comfortable in their whiteness,” Peele said.

About 20% of UAS students are Alaska Native, but only about 7% of its faculty and staff. UAS Chancellor Karen Carey said she wants those numbers to be closer. And that means hiring more people who are Alaska Native.

“You know, just in terms of looking at things like hiring practices,” Carey said. “Are we really making sure that we are getting the most diverse pool of candidates that we can?”

Last week, the Board of Regents heard each of the three universities present plans for accomplishing that goal. 

Ronalda Cadiente Brown is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Alaska Native Programs at UAS.
Ronalda Cadiente Brown is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Alaska Native Programs at UAS. (Ronalda Cadiente Brown)

“We’ll also be doing some training for all of our faculty and staff, because if you’re coming here from say Chicago or Kansas or Texas and you’re moving here to work, you may not know anything about the Alaska Native populations,” Carey said.

Ronalda Cadiente Brown is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Alaska Native Programs at UAS. She played a big part in coming up with the plan they presented to the board. 

“There’s not one size that fits all for any Alaska Native student,” Cadiente Brown said. “The course of study, what they bring to the university setting, the demands on them from the goals and desires that they have, and the levels of support. There are so many variables that we hope by this work that we do our best to improve the system so that we have basically an answer of support for anyone and everyone that needs it.”

Once campus plans are approved, changes could come as soon as the fall semester.