The application for the University of Alaska gives students the opportunity to characterize themselves into 17 different ethnic origins. After a prospective student checks a box on the application, they begin their career as a statistic that will be marked with trends both negative and positive.
Of the 17 ethnicities reported at UAA, 11 are inclusive of Alaska Natives.
Alaska Native students comprise the second largest ethnicity at UAA. In 2008, 1,532 Alaska Native students were enrolled at the University. But despite this relatively high number, Alaska Natives are not graduating within four years at rates comparable to the rest of the student body.
As a whole, UAA’s student population does not have a record of high graduation rates. By 2008, only 7.4 percent of first time undergraduates who began in 2004 had graduated at the Anchorage campus. For Alaska Native students, graduation rates descend even lower to 3.5 percent for the same four-year time period.
Last year saw the highest rate of any other four-year period in the past for Alaska Native students. Previous to 2008 the percentage of students graduating after four years remained closer to 2.4. In 2006 the number was only one half of a percent.
“It is a daunting process [beginning college], students can be confused and financial aid can be a problem,” said Lynette Young, Alaska Native student and tutor at Native Student Services.
Since many Alaska Native students are coming to UAA from very different cultures, dissimilarities in communication, living and learning styles arise in the more urban environment.
“Alaska Native students are often taught not to look others in the eye during conversation,” said Casey Jones, who graduated from UAA in psychology and now works at Native Student Services. “Also, in villages teachers will ask students if they need help, the student does not usually ask the teacher.”
Many Native Students must also exchange many opportunities within their culture to begin at UAA.
“Students may feel funny or ashamed for coming to UAA,” said Jones. “They are not following their cultural traditions. It can be weird for elders too, they would like to keep traditions alive, yet they would also like the younger generations to go to college even though they miss out on cultural education.”
“Native Students enroll because they are being encouraged by people from the village,” said Willy Templeton, director of Native Student Services. “Unfortunately, many of these students usually go home. What we are seeing are students returning after a few years on their own terms.”
In fact, as the years pass after a Native Student enrolls, they are more likely to graduate. The half of a percent of Native students who enrolled in 2002 and graduated after four years were joined by 3.2 percent of their classmates after five years. After six years the statistics rose even higher, with 4.1 percent more students graduating.
“Native Students have to adapt more to life and culture at UAA,” said Templeton.
To help student adapt, Native Student Services started Native Early Transition, a program allowing Native Students to move in at UAA earlier than others.
“It gives students time to transition from a very different environment,” said Templeton.
Before a Native Student even arrives at UAA, however, they must find a way to apply.
“Internet connections are poor in villages,” said Jones, “it is difficult to apply to UAA, there is no knowledge of the system and students are usually the first generation in their families to attend college.”
Off-campus Outreach Orientation, or “Triple O,” is another program started by Native Student Services that aims to eliminate this problem. UAA staff and faculty travel to high schools in rural villages in order to register students from those areas. Instead of registering for classes immediately preceding the commencement of classes in fall, Native Students have the opportunity to register in April and May without the difficulty of finding an internet connection or traveling to Anchorage.
“This creates a more seamless connection between rural high schools and UAA,” said Templeton.