Programs expand to support Native student success

After graduating high school in Nome and working as a laborer and then clerical staff there for years, Hannah Kostiew decided to get a college degree. When she arrived at UAA in 2002, Kostiew said she felt overwhelmed.

“I was very scared,” said Kostiew, a junior in human services. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I don’t know how I’m going to do it.’

Kostiew was the first member of her family to go to college, so she couldn’t ask her parents for advice.

And, she was afraid there wouldn’t be many other Alaska Natives at UAA.

Kostiew said she was touring campus with her husband and feeling lost when she spotted the Native Student Services sign in the Rasmuson Hall.

“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s where I have to go,'” Kostiew said. “When I came in, they welcomed me and made me feel really good.”

In June 2005, UAA released a report, “Increasing Student Success: Alaska Native Students.” The report showed that although retention rates for Alaska Native students had been trending upward since 1998, retention rates for Alaska Native Students at UAA were still significantly lower than those for the general population of UAA students. Graduation and other performance measures were also lower for Alaska Native students. And enrollment of Alaska Native students at UAA was around 8 percent, even though Alaska Natives comprise almost 20 percent of the general population of Alaska.

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Linda Lazzell, UAA’s vice chancellor, said, “The indicators for childhood early education show children from diverse populations perform about the same as the majority, Caucasion population. So, if they’re not performing well in K-12 and college, we have to find out why and support their success.”

UAA launched the Council on Alaska Native Student Success in April to look at factors that help or hinder Alaska Native students in their educational goals at UAA.

Kathy Graves, a psychology professor and director of the ANPsych (Alaska Natives in Psychology) program at UAA, said an important component of improving the learning environment for Alaska Native students is to connect them to their cultural backgrounds.

“Any way we can connect Alaska Native students with their culture, tradition and elders, it strengthens them by connecting them to cultural resiliency, which enhances their ability to withstand stress.”

UAA has implemented several new strategies for making the campus a more welcoming environment for Alaska Native students since the June 2005 report came out. Many of the university’s new efforts derive from an ANPsych study conducted in February 2005, called the Alaska Native Student Wellness Project. The project examined how UAA dorms could become a more welcoming environment to Native students, through focus groups of Alaska Native and American Indian students who lived in the UAA residence halls.

In the ANPsych study, many students reported “feeling homesick and isolated.” The study participants said having potlucks, Native dancing, cultural activities, and a space to hang out and connect with other Alaska Native students would make the Residence Halls feel more like home. One participant reported that rural students need more time to settle into their dorms. Many participants in the study said they’d like to see UAA professors go through cultural sensitivity training, saying they felt “belittled” and misunderstood by some UAA faculty.

In response to the report, the Department of Residence Life created the Cama-i Room and the Alaska Native and Rural Outreach Program (ANROP) in the fall 2005 semester. The Cama-i room is a place for both Native and non-Native students to socialize in an environment that emphasizes Alaska Native culture. Karla Booth, the ANROP coordinator, staffs the room and coordinates cultural activities that take place in Residence Life.

“I try to create programs that have an Alaska Native, Native American or Alaskan cultural theme,” Booth said.

ANROP coordinated with Native Student Services to provide weekly Alaska Native crafts in the Cama-i room in a series called “Sharing Traditions,” and with ANPsych to provide potlucks with Alaska Native dancing. ANROP hosted other cultural events in the Cama-i room, and invited Native dance groups to hold their practices in the Commons and guest speakers from the wider community to give talks in the Cama-i Room.

The stepping-stone for many Alaska Native students into the university system, including those who live off-campus, is Native Student Services. The program coordinates with other university organizations to host cultural events, but primarily NSS helps individual Alaska Native students from both rural and urban areas get acquainted with the university system and find out what they need. NSS sends out letters to Alaska Native students who’ve applied for admissions to invite them to a series of Student Help days that NSS hosts in the week before school starts. After the letters are sent out, NSS makes follow-up phone calls to those students.

New to the NSS program this year was the addition of an Alaska Native student listserv to inform students of upcoming events and job and scholarship opportunities. NSS also participated in a college fair at a rural school district for the first time this year, and provided a new cultural awareness session to Residence Life staff.

Willy Templeton, director of NSS, grew up in Anchorage where he graduated high school and went to the Anchorage campus when it was a community college. Templeton received his bachelor’s in Alaska Native studies at UAF and earned a masters in public administration from the University of Washington.

“My parents didn’t finish high school and didn’t go to college,” Templeton said. “So you feel a bit foreign and outside of your comfort zone. I think it’s very important to make studetnts feel welcome and comfortable on campus.”

Tatiana Ozhuvwan is a junior in the nursing program. She moved to UAA from Soldotna and is of Aleutiq heritage. She said she’s used both NSS and the Cama-i room since coming to UAA.

“NSS has helped me a lot,” Ozhuvwan said. “And the Cama-i room is a good place to hang out. There’s a lot of good programs that go on there.”