Former Mt. Edgecumbe superintendent becomes new Alaska Pacific University president

Janelle Vanasse began her role as Alaska Pacific University’s new president on June 1, 2022. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

Janelle Vanasse is still waiting for many of her belongings to arrive in Anchorage on a barge from Sitka. But she’s already started serving as Alaska Pacific University’s new president, a job she began June 1.

“We’re at a point of growth,” she said. “That’s a growth in programs, and it’s a growth in our outreach.”

Former university president Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson left in March 2021 to lead the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Davidson was the university’s first female president and had been in the role since April 2020. Vanasse replaces Hilton Hallock, who had served as interim president since March 2021.

Vanasse spent the last six years working as superintendent of Mt. Edgecumbe High School. Before that, she was director of secondary education for the Lower Kuskokwim School District.  

Both roles gave her experience working with Alaska Native students from rural communities. Those who wanted to go to college were usually the first in their families to do so. As a first generation college student herself, Vanasse knew it could be intimidating.

“I really had a passion for trying to get them successfully transitioning into whatever their post-secondary plan was, and to elevate the opportunities particularly for our Native students and our rural students,” she said.

Now, as president of Alaska Pacific University, she wants to help those students from the other side of that transition. Enrollment in Fall 2021 was the highest in five years, according to the university, and a quarter of enrolled students are Alaska Native or American Indian.

In 2017, the university began working toward becoming a tribal college after struggling financially for years. APU restructured its board of trustees, revised its articles of incorporation, and became tribally controlled. In 2019, more than 20% of students were Alaska Native, meeting the U.S. Department of Education’s threshold to become an Alaska Native-serving institution. That designation qualified APU for a wider pool of grants.

In an email, provost Hilton Hallock wrote that becoming a tribally controlled university reaffirmed “its founding mission to develop Indigenous leaders in Alaska.”

Vanasse said it’s important to recognize the cultural values of Alaska Native students. 

“Most of our Alaska Native students come from homes and communities that are very relational and very interconnected, and yet so much of what we’ve done as institutions in school is about your individual goals and how you get ahead,” she said. “Exploring how achieving some degrees feeds back into the community, and thinking about careers and opportunities to advance the community, and not just you individually, I think are key.”

One example is the university’s nursing program, which works with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and tribal health organizations across the state to give students experiential learning opportunities. It recently received national accreditation, meaning students can become licensed by the state. The program also emphasizes respect for Alaska Native knowledge, and Vanasse said that’s an important part of the university’s mission.

“The history of universities and schools, in general, is that we didn’t recognize the education that came before our institutions,” she said. “Too often we asked students to leave behind some of the most intellectual thinking they bring with them, because we didn’t value those other ways of knowing.” 

Alaska Pacific University has already started working on that by establishing an Elders Council and developing more resources on Alaska Native history and culture, Vanasse said. She’d also like to see upgrades to some campus buildings and stronger connections to community organizations in Anchorage. 

“But that’s not something you do in a month,” she said. “There’s a lot of work ahead.”

[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

Previous articleAlaska News Nightly: Thursday, June 9, 2022
Next articleNew revelations and 3 other takeaways from the first Jan. 6 committee hearing

No posts to display