Sen. Lisa Murkowski took time to meet with UAA students in an effort to discuss diversity on the campus.
In her opening statement, delivered Jan. 18, the senator said she had recently visited East High School, where 31 percent of students are Caucasian. She acknowledged the increase in diversity seen in the schools compared to when she attended high school in Alaska. When she decided to visit UAA, she wanted to “find out what the face of the university is like.”
“I did want to get a little bit of input from you in terms of what does Alaska look like today,” Murkowski said in her opening statement. “As I look around the room, it’s different and that’s a good thing. But we also recognize that as it changes, we also need to be looking at how we do things differently. Is the business model any different? How do we educate young people who have limited English skills? How do we reach out to those families who have no English speaking skills? How do we incorporate them into our communities? How do we be that more inclusive and welcoming state?”
Murkowski said she would be relaxed and informal as she asked questions about the diversity concerns and praises of UAA students.
The concerns varied: A worried student said a friend seemed not to be attending school after UPD did not believe he was assaulted. Another wondered why UAA was offering a Chinese history or cultural course in Eagle River when most of the Chinese students attended business courses at the main campus. student government senator Zach Liszka spoke about the need for something to bridge all cultural groups together, whether it be activities, student housing, or a central place everyone gathers.
Students also brought up many praises: UAA’s more proactive approach to encouraging diversity and community on campus, the English as a second language program for providing tutors to help students with their studies, Alaska Native Student Services for assisting students in transitioning from small villages to city life, and AHAINA Student Services for offering a more personal setting for students of many cultures to receive advising and feel like part of a community.
Some students began voicing concerns about their smaller Alaska communities. Nontraditional student Candis Anderson raised a concern that tourism is not helping Southeast communities, and engineering student Natasha Harrington spoke about her want to help Kodiak’s economy through renewable resources.
Though the topics veered off diversity, Murkowski obliged by chipping in about these subjects as well.
Murkowski agreed that Southeast Alaska had been left to figure out their economic niche for themselves, and that tourism wasn’t the complete answer.
“Once the last tourism ship goes, the sidewalks are literally rolled up,” Murkowski said.
She said Southeast Alaska’s economy was not the only one in trouble, saying she hopes that Alaska will develop a renewable energy plan that will directly help many Alaska communities. She said she would like to use some of the state’s current resource funds to pay for research in biofuels and geothermal, ocean, wind and solar energy.
“I always like to talk about the renewable energy aspect and what opportunities we have here in Alaska. I kind of view it as the way for us, here in the state, to showcase our ingenuity,” Murkowski told The Northern Light. “It’s not just the traditional energy resources, it’s that next generation of renewable resources. What we need are the great minds that can adapt that technology to make it accessible through affordability.”
Murkowski spoke highly of the Alaska Native Science and Engineering program. Plus, she encouraged those in the meeting who spoke about bringing the skills they’ve learned at UAA to their hometowns around Alaska.
When a student from the WWAMI biomedical program expressed concern about the limited access to health care for the elderly and poor, Murkowski shared her concern. She explained that some Medicare patients are finding that once they turn 65, their doctors of 15 years turn them away because they cannot afford to be reimbursed 30 cents on the dollar.
She said both increasing the reimbursement percentage and increasing the number of Alaska physicians – through UAA options such as WAMMI and the nursing program – will help.
Student Activities programming team members Ashley Webb and Tiffany Chenery said it was a productive meeting because it covered many important issues, but it wasn’t what they expected because the issue of diversity on campus was only discussed part of the time.
Chenery said she did like that Murkowski’s talk stressed the significance of making students feel important and comfortable on campus – which the meeting showed programs like AHAINA and Native Student Services are accomplishing.
“There’s a sense of community at UAA,” Chenery said.
Chancellor Fran Ulmer and a few other administrators sat along one wall of the meeting room.
“I thought it was good that the dean and the chancellor (were) there,” Webb said.
Casey Anderson, Student Activities programming team manager, disagreed. He felt the meeting became too political because of the administrators’ presence.
When asked what he would do differently, he said, “For starters, you could eliminate administrators in the meeting to allow students to express ideas more freely.”
Ulmer spoke to students before Murkowski entered the room about the importance for all students to remember that the shorter legislative session meant the university would have less time to stress the importance of the UAA items in the governor’s budget – including the UA Board of Regents budget – especially the need for the new Nursing and Allied Health Building. She encouraged students to keep this issue in mind and speak with their parents about presenting these needs to legislators.
“We are a young and growing campus with many, many needs,” Ulmer told Murkowski when thanking her for coming to the meeting.
Anderson also said he wished the meeting would have stayed devoted to UAA diversity as planned by including more about Pacific island and Asian cultures on campus, instead of drifting into economics and the growth of UAA, though he said those are important topics.
“Overall, I thought it was a good meeting, but I was disappointed in how political it was,” Anderson said.
Mechanical engineering student Melanie Leydon said the meeting wasn’t what she expected but that she appreciated the chance to hear Murkowski’s thoughts on issues that surround both the campus and the community.
“We are thrilled to have Lisa Murkowski on campus,” Ulmer said. “She has been a supporter of education in many, many ways, and she is demonstrating that by her willingness to meet with students and talk with them about things that really matter to them.”
The meeting rolled a little over the hour Murkowski had committed to. Afterward, she said she was in many meetings that week to discuss the state’s changing demographics. She said she believes UAA has opened the doors to other ethnicities and created a more receptive and friendly campus.
“It was a very stimulating discussion, and I was pleased to have the time with the students,” Murkowski said.