The meeting is called to order at precisely 5:30. As Ezekiel Kaufman addresses the 13 students and three faculty members poised around the conference room table, the playful bantering around the room dies down. The movie Cheaper by the Dozen comes to mind, only more of a “later years” edition and with an extra kid. The subject of the meeting is the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. Professional attire donned, bodies straight and leaned forward, the chaotic breakfast table scene of a large family just turned into a high-class business meeting. Kaufman, a senior at UAA, is presiding over a meeting of the 49th State Fellows and the people sitting before him represent the program and its coordinators.
Professors James Muller and Steve Haycox founded the 49th State Fellows Program in 2005. The flow of students going down South for college, coupled with the recently adopted UA Scholars program, inspired Muller and Haycox to create a program that would allows students to stay in Alaska and still receive a high-class education.
“I thought we could do even more for our very best students,” Muller explained.
While teaching classes in the Lower 48, Muller got a first-hand look at similar programs, and brought the inspiration home with him. He then asked Haycox, who would become the Director of the Fellows, to help found a program that could “give students an outstanding education focusing on humanities and the liberal arts.”
Six years later, the Program is still striving to do just that.
On September 17th, the Fellows ushered in their new freshman class. The students came from various parts of the state, but were all picked for distinguished talent in high school and intellectual promise. Aurora Dordan, a freshman majoring in Japanese, just entered the “Intrepid” Class of 2015. At first glance, the program was not appealing.
“I was scared away from it at first, because it looked like a butt-load of work,” Dordan chuckled. But in the end, it was the sense of community that enticed her. Dordan had been a part of Junior ROTC at Eagle River High School, and was searching for that larger group to help connect her with the University and other people.
Which is one thing, according to Muller, the program excels at.
“One of the wonderful things about the Fellow’s Program is the chance for people from all over the State to get to know each other well and go to college together,” he said.
Through their difficult course work and out of class activities, the Fellows help each other out and create irrevocable bonds in the process.
“It’s a huge advantage to the Fellows to go to college with a fairly small group of other talented students who quickly become their best friends,” stated Muller. But Dordan isn’t just looking for the social aspect of this program.
“I want a challenge and to become more well rounded,” she explained.
There are two parts to the Fellows Program. The first part is curricular. This designates history and politics classes, an economics course, honors seminars, and for seniors, a thesis on a topic within their major. In addition, the Fellows take an Honors Tutorial each semester. Much like the meeting that Kaufman commanded, these tutorials focus on reading, writing, conversation, and public speaking by choosing a reading and discussing it as a group, or having a distinguished member of the community come and speak with them.
The second part of the program is co-curricular. This includes a Polaris lecture series, memberships with the Alaska World Affairs Council and Commonwealth North, and a partnership with the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra. The guests provided by these organizations offer the students the unique opportunity to see the variety and success of Alaskans and other professionals.
Rustication marks the beginning of the year for the Fellows. Essentially a camping trip, this kick-off event is a chance for the freshmen to bond with the older students and learn about what the program entails. And during exam week every semester, the Fellows hold a party. Through the classes and extra activities, the Program hopes to offer Dordan, and the other students, the fulfillment of the challenge and well roundedness they are looking for.
Each class gets an opportunity to choose a name and mascot. Names this year include Imperium (after the infamous Harry Potter curse), Anuniaq, Legacy, and this year’s Intrepid “Unicorns”. Between the one-on-one learning environments, meetings with distinguished professionals, and travels throughout Alaska and beyond, the 49th State Fellows Program aims to cultivate a tradition of success among young Alaskans. Two members of this year’s senior class are applying for Fulbright Teaching Exchanges, and several juniors are readying themselves to apply for Truman Scholarships this fall.
“Some people have compared the Fellows Program to boot camp. It’s hard work,” Muller states. “It’s a pretty big obligation to get yourself into, but there are a lot of rewards.”
Not unsurprisingly, Kaufman ends the meeting at 6:45 on the dot. The discussion is over, and any heated arguments conjured up during the intense debate lay forgotten on the table. The Fellows pack up, joking and teasing each other again as they walk out of the conference room. Some will stay at the library and work on homework; others head back to their beds for some much needed sleep. But next Wednesday they will return determined to uphold their status as being some of the best students UAA has to offer.