The week before fall semester begins, the University of Anchorage Alaska campus is alive with a new round of bright-eyed freshman looking towards their future and beginning to plan for the next four years of their lives. Students come from all over to begin their college careers at UAA, but about 400 of the applicants this year were from Alaska Native and rural communities trying to establish a new life in an urban setting.
Since 2006, UAA has offered a four-day program called Native Early Transitions to help first-time freshmen from Native and rural backgrounds adjust to the college life in Anchorage. UAA student Hannah Kostiew, an intern with Native Student Services (NSS) in 2006, was crucial in the development of Native Early Transitions program (NET), as well as Willie Templeton, Director of Native Student Services.
This fall semester, a reported 400 Alaska Native and rural students applied to UAA and 42 of them participated in the NET program. Last year 50 students participated. The program sees a split in its applicants, half from rural villages and the other half from Anchorage with Native backgrounds.
“An important part of the program is not only to help students get on track, but also to help them form relationships and friendships,” said Casey Jones, UAA NSS Student Success Coordinator. Jones reports there are several struggles for Native and rural students coming into UAA, ranging from adjustments to college life as well as cultural adjustments in an urban setting. Their struggles are similar to most freshmen, but the adjustment to daily life in the city can be especially difficult.
“I know students get homesick for their way of life, like the traditional hunting and food, as well as their families,” Jones said.
NET is a structured four-day program, very similar to other college orientations, with the first day primarily for checking in and flying in from various villages and communities around the state. The second and third day, students participate in icebreakers, tours of the campus, and presentations. On the fourth day students participate in a recreational activity, such as hiking Flat Top. NET also takes students off-campus for movie nights and familiarizes them with the city, including helping them learn how to use the Anchorage People Mover bus system.
Sheila Randazzo, NSS Transition Advisor, reports that one of the main struggles for Alaska Native and rural students at UAA is a fear of not knowing anyone on campus.
“When our students arrive to campus, their social support is zero basically,” she said. “That makes it very difficult, and they come in to school feeling very scared and fearful.”
Randazzo reported that students often have difficulty asking for help from people in Anchorage because of culture dynamics. Students coming into the NET program need that extra help in registering for classes, figuring out where to live and orienting themselves with the campus and city.
Lydia Agnus is a sophomore at UAA majoring in Nursing and participated in the program in 2010. She was born in Nightmute, a rural village in Alaska with a reported population of 208, and went to boarding school in Sitka. Agnus received a flyer in the mail about the program and decided to sign up since she had missed Howl Days.
“I thought it was a great experience and I met a lot of really good friends that I’m still close with,” she said. “I also think I had a better staff relationship with my NSS advisor than I would have at the Wolf Days orientation.”
A majority of the students in this year’s NET program still come back to the NSS offices on a regular basis. The program follows up with students throughout their college careers by helping them stay connected with other students, setting them up with tutoring and providing a comfortable atmosphere that students can always return to if need be.
Although UAA’s NSS program still works continuously to address the issue of dropout rates for Alaska Native and rural students, the NET program has proved to be a step in the right direction and will continue to offer a community of additional support.