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ANCHORAGE - Education came easy for Kathy Black. Growing up in Noorvik, a northwestern village outside of Kotzebue, she breezed through high school with A's.
"It didn't really prepare me for this," Black said, taking a break from her accounting books in a lounge for Alaska Native students at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "Coming here, it's a matter of adjusting. It's like two different worlds."
When she graduates in the spring with an accounting degree, Black will be the first degree-holder in her family.
Though success stories for students of color like Black are becoming more common as minority enrollment has increased at UAA, the institution is still having a hard time keeping Native students from dropping out.
Overall the retention rate, which each semester measures the number of returning students, increased at UAA from 67 percent in 2003 to 70 percent in 2004.
Between 2003 and 2004, retention rates for Hispanic students surpassed the university average, rising from 66 percent to 86 percent. Asian/Pacific Islander student rates grew from 65 percent to 86 percent. Rates for blacks jumped from 57 percent to 71 percent.
But Alaska Native students dropped a percentage point from 59 percent to 58 percent.
"(Coming to college) is a huge cultural shift," said Herb Schroeder, founder of the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, which has a 70 percent retention rate. "Traditional foods are gone, families gone, all the things that keep students healthy are gone in a jet-plane ride."
It's common for students to come to UAA from rural communities where they didn't have access to higher-level classes, he said.
"They might get here and find out they basically have to do two more years of high school," he said. "Those are the students you lose because the grind is so long and so hard."
Schroeder has found that his program helps keep Alaska Native students engaged by providing the supports they are used to, like community events and traditional foods.
Close to 90 percent of the students in ANSEP come from rural communities, Schroeder said. Aside from cultural issues and preparedness, students face economic hurdles too.
"I have some students who didn't eat if their father didn't go hunting," he said. "These are some of the poorest people in the country."
A Native Student Services center, along with programs like ANSEP and Recruiting and Retention of Alaska Natives into Nursing, or RRANN, have bolstered Native enrollment, which grew 27 percent since 2001, he said.
Other minority groups grew as well, with the overall minority population at UAA climbing to almost 23 percent, or 732 students. The greatest growth came among Asian/Pacific Islanders, who increased by nearly 36 percent, according to the university.
Hispanic enrollment has climbed 24 percent, and the black student population has grown about 9 percent.
The white student population grew by 5 percent during the same period.
UAA's student body is beginning to mirror the demographics of Anchorage's population, which is about 32 percent minority, according to the most recent figures from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Anchorage's population is close to 9 percent Asian/Pacific Islander; UAA is about 5 percent Asian/Pacific Islander.
About 8 percent of city residents are black, while blacks make up about 3 percent of the UAA's population.
The university is about 8 percent Alaska Native, compared to the city's population, which is about 10 percent Alaska Native. Hispanics make up a little more than 1 percent of UAA's student population, compared to Anchorage's population, which is about 5 percent Hispanic.
Minority enrollment and retention have improved thanks to a slate of programs, including mentoring, orientation and recruiting programs, according to Yvonne Roland, director of African American Hispanic Asian International Native American student programs. The biggest hurdle for most groups is economic, she said.
"It is very economical for students, whether they are minority or not, to seek education in the state," Roland said, adding that Outside tuitions continue to climb. "It all goes back to the bottom line."
Anthony Rivas, 24, president of the Union of Students at UAA, is Dominican. He said economic disadvantages coupled with lack of information about how to finance education plagues minority communities. Rivas entered the military after graduating from high school in Anchorage.
"I was raised poor, and that was a big hindrance to me going to school," he said. "I just didn't know all that was available to me."
Shayla Compton, 21, an African-American student and founder of the new campus group MOSAIC - Multicultural Organization of Students Actively Involved on Campus - agreed with Rivas. UAA's bureaucracy is a large part of the problem, she said. The financial aid system is hard to navigate, and students have a difficult time getting the information they need.
"I know three people off the top of my head who registered full-time and then two days before classes, they got a paper that said, 'you have been dropped,' " she said. "It's an administrative problem. There's kind of not the best customer service going on at the kiosk there."
Megan Olson, a UAA spokeswoman, said the college has heard student concerns about financial aid and responded by changing the structure of the enrollment services department, adding eight more clerks and a manager.
"This change has already had an impact. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from students," she said.