Film highlights plight of Native college students

Panel discusses issues after world premiere of KTOO documentary

Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2007

Going away to college can be difficult for any student, but leaving behind cultural identity and their sense of community can be particularly detrimental to Native students at the university level, educators say.

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KTOO-TV and University of Alaska Southeast hosted the world premiere of "Alaska College Track 2" Wednesday night, a locally produced documentary film highlighting Native students' success in Alaska.

"The kids that have the strong cultural identity with their Tlingit or Haida culture seem to be the ones with the clearest goal of getting a college degree," Producer Katie Bausler said.

The filmmakers catch up with three Native college students from rural Southeast Alaska several years after first filming their academic aspirations in 2003. "Alaska College Track 2" highlights the educational trials and tribulations of the contemporary Alaska Native college student by highlighting the success and failures of the three students in up-close and personal ways.

When to watch:

"Alaska College Track 2" broadcast dates:

• Alaska One stations statewide, 9 p.m. tonight.

• KAKM in Anchorage, 9 p.m. Monday.

"They've been really great sports and have been very generous with their lives and time for this project," Bausler said.

The film primarily follows the educational peaks and valleys of University of Alaska Anchorage student Duain White of Hoonah, University of Alaska Fairbanks student Marita Tolson of Hydaburg, and UAS student Amanda Bremner of Yakutat.

All three students experience obstacles that threaten to derail their educational goals and talk about what they are doing to succeed as Alaska Native college students.

"The key to the success of the students that we talked to in college is some kind of a support system," Bausler said.

Many Native students have the great burden of being the first in their family to pursue a college degree and often find themselves struggling to cope with life outside of the support systems of the villages, she said.

"It can be a difficult transition for anyone, but especially for these kids that are totally out of their element," Bausler said.

The University of Alaska campuses have gone to great lengths to set up programs, hangouts and social networks to help these Native students feel more at home and part of a community, she said.

A panel of people featured in the documentary discussed Native success issues after the premiere of the film Wednesday night. UAS Chancellor John Pugh, UAS Director of Admissions Joe Nelson, Juneau-Douglas High School counselor Frank Coenraad and Bremner fielded a variety of questions from audience.

Nelson, an Alaska Native and graduate of Yakutat High School, said it appears the tide is turning in the way education is now being delivered to Native students. He said the documentary bring homes the fact that native cultures are still alive and aren't going away.

"The culture needs to be validated in every step of education," Nelson said. "And it's happening in small pockets."

The JDHS Early Scholars program, founded by Coenraad more than a decade ago, was also prominently featured in the documentary. Coenraad said when the program first started they had difficulty getting the 15 students to participate. The Early Scholars program presently has 76 willing participants, he said.

"The momentum is carrying forth, which is really encouraging," Coenraad said.

The program has expanded its English and math offerings and provides high school students with a first-hand glimpse of what college life is like, he said.

"By encouraging them and giving them the confidence to be there, it will go a long way," he said.

Bremner, now pursuing a college degree with the hopes of someday teaching Tlingit language, said she would have enjoyed participating in something like the Early Scholars program when she was in high school.

"I'm just amazed at the information they're given, all the opportunities they have to literally experience what being in college is like," she said.

Having more access to college materials and preparation for what university work is truly like would have been helpful, Bremner said.

"We had recruiters and people hammering college into you, but to actually experience those things, it would have given me a lot more insight," she said.

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