FAIRBANKS — A quarter century ago, Virgie King saw a problem in Fairbanks.
King was working as a teacher in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District at the time and noticed there were not nearly enough positive role models for black students.
There were, at the time, no black principals or administrators in the district office, King said. With only a few black teachers and no black principals to look up to, many black students in the district lacked strong role models.
“We needed role models,” King said. “To do that, we had to bring someone from outside.”
So King decided to bring role models into the district to meet and speak to students. In 1986, King started the first African-American Student Leadership Conference in Fairbanks.
The conference that first year took place only at Tanana Middle School, where King was teaching. After that first year, the conference was such a success at Tanana that they decided to expand it not only to all the other middle schools but also to the high schools.
Now in its 27th year, the conference spans two days — one for middle school and one for high school.
The goal of the conference, King said, is to impress on students the importance of education toward achieving dreams.
“This is the one step, the opportunity to meet with the people, the role models that they have not seen otherwise,” King said.
Former state Sen. Bettye Davis attended the event Tuesday as the keynote speaker. Davis said she hoped each of the students would take away a sense of responsibility to work hard for what they want to achieve.
“(We’re) telling them, ‘You have a responsibility to learn all you can while you can,’” Davis said. “This is not a practice run. You don’t go this way but once.”
One of the speakers Tuesday showed students how much less money the average high school dropout makes compared with someone with a diploma or a degree.
Besides instilling the students with a sense of responsibility, King said she hopes parents will get just as involved in their child’s education.
Davis said she also felt it was imperative the students know they will always have help.
“I hope with the workshops and things that they’re attending these two days that they will pick up enough to know that they’re not in this by themselves, that their main role is to make sure they do the best they can as students and hope that the principals, administrators, parents and community will come forth and provide the necessary funding that they need,” Davis said. “They’re not in this by themselves.”
Roosevelt Gray, pastor at Fairbanks Christian Center, said he hopes to bring the message he heard at the conference to his congregation and to the community — which he hopes will pick up the message to support the students.
“When I grew up, I didn’t have this type of informational thing,” Gray said.
“I can see a need for the community to support it more.”