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UAA program grows Native engineers

Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2003

ANCHORAGE - A frazzled 51-year old white guy from Chicago who started his career shoveling snow at an Arctic pipeline camp is performing miracles at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Herb Schroeder takes raw talent, adds pizza, a buddy system, forced labor, constant fretting, whatever money he can squeeze out of the oil patch, and creates Alaska Native engineers.

Young villagers are coming in unprecedented numbers to be part of ANSEP, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, now in its sixth year, and they're staying to graduate.

Fully 20 percent of the student body at UAA's School of Engineering is now Alaska Native. And the number increases each year.

This is an amazing turnaround.

In the 20 years since the engineering school opened, maybe three or four Natives have gotten degrees. No one seems to have kept records or figured out why, but people whose memories go back to the early 1980s say even that estimate may be high.

The wizard who got ANSEP going is Schroeder, a civil engineer and professor who worked the oil fields and the Bush before becoming a teacher with a mission.

Schroeder's goal is to prepare Alaska Natives for jobs in industries doing business here, like oil, utilities and resource development. Industries with few Natives on staff have complained for years that they can't find villagers with the needed technological training. ANSEP is designed to fix that.

According to the National Science Foundation, the average retention rate for Native Americans in engineering programs nationwide is 27 percent. ANSEP has passed 70 percent.

The program sounds like an obvious winner. But ANSEP had trouble finding its groove. Most of the early students dropped out or, unprepared for the tough courses, changed majors. With no university funding available, Schroeder pitched the program to private industry, to the people who would most benefit from a new pool of qualified job applicants.

He and his colleagues looked around the country at programs designed to attract and keep Native Americans in school. They learned from their mistakes and adapted as they went along. At the beginning, he recruited Natives who had succeeded in another discipline or college, hoping they would serve as role models for students right out of high school.

Now the hard work has begun to pay off. ANSEP is graduating engineers. One last year. Probably three this coming year. More next year.

"It's one of those programs that over a longer period of time is going to make a significant difference to a large part of our population," said Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. President David Wight, whose company was an early investor.

Schroeder found his ANSEP mission at the end of a long road that began as an unmotivated college dropout who, in 1974, turned to Alaska for adventure and opportunity and found a job on the pipeline.

Working around engineers on the pipeline convinced him he was smart enough to do what they did. He returned to school in 1977 and graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1981 as an engineer.

For the next eight years, he worked mostly on the North Slope, building in the oil fields. One of his other jobs involved studying village sanitation systems. Many seemed badly designed, inappropriate for the community's needs. In most villages no one understood well enough how the systems worked to keep them running without expensive outside help.

The biggest disconnect was between the community and federal design engineers. "There's such a chasm of understanding, it's almost impossible," Schroeder said.

In 1995, Schroeder was teaching at UAA and inventing ANSEP with two friends who worked in student services. They devised a plan that included two key points: Wrap incoming freshmen in a cocoon of support, and force them into real-world internships right from the start to promote job skills and self-confidence.

No student in the program takes a class alone. If an ANSEP student is taking a course, another ANSEP student or a volunteer mentor takes it too. ANSEP students work together in study groups and share information on how to negotiate university life and the city at large. They use the university's tutoring program, and Schroeder recruits upperclassmen willing to work with his kids.

The university said it had no money to fund the program, so Schroeder sold the idea to Alyeska Pipeline, which offered $96,000 seed money and has continued to provide scholarships. Providing the internships integral to the success of the plan are Veco, an oil field services company; NANA, the Native corporation of the Northwest Arctic Borough; and BP Exploration (Alaska).

Schroeder knows all his students personally. He keeps a concerned eye on their progress, and everyone has to show up on Fridays for a pizza lunch and information exchange. The goal is to get student problems noticed and dealt with before they mushroom into disasters.

Willie Sakeagak, 23, attended the University of Delaware after graduating from Barrow High School. He became an ANSEP student in 1998 and expects to graduate this year.

Sakeagak had a good freshman year at Delaware, but in his second year his academics fell apart. He broke up with his girlfriend. He had no one he felt he could really talk to.

"I was probably the only (Alaska) Native student in Delaware," he said. "I was without all the things that are meaningful to me, all the things that kept me calm inside - family, the food I ate, hunting were all gone. All the support that makes you do well.

"Then I got a call from Herb," he said.

Viola Stepetin from St. Paul is studying to be a materials engineer.

"You're building a network of people who care about you," Stepetin said. "It strengthens you in that they're going through the same things you are. ... Sometimes it takes one critical moment" to keep a student from giving up, she said.



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