ANCHORAGE - Maybe you saw them Saturday. Twenty-six students from faraway Yup'ik villages strolling under gray skies along the Anchorage coastal trail and ordering milkshakes at Red Robin.
Next time say hello. A new three-year, $1.6 million program plans to help these teenagers go to college or job training - and stick with it - on their way to becoming your classmate and co-worker. Your airplane pilot. Your boss.
Paid for with a federal Department of Education grant and launched by the Alaska Humanities Forum, the program focuses on students who are two years from finishing high school and in many cases would be the first in their families to go college.
Fredrick Alexie, 16, arrived from the lower Yukon River village of Emmonak. Recruiters for the program couldn't believe how high he scored on high school graduation qualifying exams, he said.
With his swooping bangs and black hoodie, Alexie could be any Anchorage teen, but he says this is only his second visit to the city.
The first was when he was born.
Others know every shopping mall in Anchorage, but all may face the day when they'll travel hundreds of miles from familiar, tight-knit villages to earn degrees.
The program, called "Take Wing," is meant to familiarize the teens with campus life and assure the students and their families that, as one organizer put it, it's OK for them to be selfish about their education.
In Anchorage on Saturday, they began the day at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in the woods of East Anchorage - a kind of gradual introduction to the city.
Alexie pointed out a birch tree to Amber Matthews, project manager for Take Wing. The bark was bare - none of the fungi that elders in Emmonak might dry and make into a kind of chewing tobacco.
Maybe the Natives here already picked it all, he said.
Alexie and students from several Yukon and Kuskokwim River villages will spend the next week living in University of Alaska Anchorage campus housing, learning their way around the city and meeting Alaska Native college students and professionals who navigated the dual worlds of campus and village life.
Already the students studied prices at Fred Meyer, learning how much it would cost to stock a dorm room. There will be rock climbing. On one of the days, groups of students will be dropped off in downtown Anchorage with their supervisors and have to find their way back to UAA.
They'll return to the city next year and the year after that, as Take Wing organizers work with their families to encourage the students to leave home for schooling in the face of commercial fishing demands, family emergencies and simple homesickness.
Already during the short visit, reports of a recent suicide in one of the Yukon-Kuskokim Delta villages touched Take Wing students Saturday.
"The more we're able to build their resilience in themselves, the more we're hoping they will be able to overcome these challenges," Matthews said.
Educators worry that many rural students drop out and return home because of culture shock or pressure from family and friends.
"Let's say I'm in college and I come home for the summer, and everybody says 'Ooh, college boy. Too fancy for us.' And that there's a lot of negative social pressure that they get from their own community," camp director Matthew Turner told Alaska Public Radio Network as the Humanities Forum prepared to launch the students' 12-day summer visit to Southcentral.
The camp began with a few days of bonding at the Job Corps center in Palmer.
One UAA civil engineering student, Melissa "Mel" Okitkun, hoped to meet the students Saturday night and perform one of the many rap songs she recorded while living on campus. Sample lyric: "What about our next generation ... Can they get a higher education?"
Rather than resentment from friends and family, however, Okitkun said she receives a warm welcome when she returns to her home town of Kotlik between classes.
While today's rural high school students still face some degree of culture shock when they arrive at city universities, things have changed since the Rural Alaska Honors Institute was created in the early 1980s at the request of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said RAHI program director Denise Wartes.
"In the early days, they concentrated more on basic skills and how to get around (the city)," said program director Denise Wartes. Today's rural students are more mobile, she said - flying to Washington, D.C., for the "Close-Up" program, competing in the Native Youth Olympics, crisscrossing the state for high school sports.
Still, researchers say they don't yet know many high school graduates in rural Alaska go to college or vocational schools, let alone how many earn degrees. Last fall fewer than 8 percent of UAA students were Alaska Native, while Alaska Natives and American Indians account for more than 15 percent of the overall state population.
Many of the Take Wing students are passing up subsistence hunting and fishing opportunities for the taste of campus life this summer
Six of the students are from Toksook Bay, where families are storing away dried fish - herring, halibut and salmon. Georgina Hanson, one of at least two students from the community of Alakanuk, 15 miles from the Bering Sea, said she would be beluga hunting with her older brother had she stayed home.
Instead, she's making her first trip to Anchorage and is thinking of going to Job Corps after high school. Maybe becoming a pilot.
Among the 22 villages in the Bethel-based Lower Kuskokwim School District, maybe 40 to 50 percent of high school graduates pursue some kind of secondary education such as college, job training or the military, said superintendent Gary Baldwin.
In the hub city of Bethel, the number of students going on to secondary schools is far higher, he estimates.
"With the Take Wing program, there's a pretty strong focus on working with the families so the students will have family support when they go through the application process and being accepted to a college, but also after they get there," Baldwin said.
The district is one of two, along with the Lower Yukon School District, participating. Organizers hope to recruit another two dozen students by next summer.
"I'd rather experience college right now," Tony Larson of Napaskiak said while touring the Heritage Center. "I want to get used to it before I get there so I don't feel left out or anything."
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