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Education and Empowerment: Alaska Native scholarships and training advance culture, heritage, future.

A self-described geek, Blake Beatty was always a solid student. Even in his free time, he was more likely to play computer games with his other academic friends than hang out in one of the local Kenai parking lots. "It's who I was," he says.

When a near-fatal car accident left him with a broken back and other health complications, Beatty was forced to drop out of Kenai High School his freshman year; he earned his GED a year after his classmates graduated and began working in Soldotna. He was ashamed of not graduating with his class, and the ensuing series of odd jobs were doing nothing to build his selfesteem as he bounced from pizza and furniture delivery to big box retail, all while watching as his friends began graduating from college.

"I have to move on," he remembers saying to himself one day. "I have to do something more."

Not knowing about scholarships and training programs, Beatty never thought he would be able to afford a four-year degree. He registered for school full-time at Kenai Peninsula College and bartended at night to pay for his classes. But it had been years since he had been in a classroom. Terrified, and with no other financial or emotional support, his self-fulfilling prophecy was realized and he dropped the computer electronics class that was going to be the springboard for his career in computer electronics.

The CIRI Foundation

"Always ask for help. If you feel like you are floundering, not understanding, stuck--ask someone. You aren't in this educational journey alone."

As President and CEO for The CIRI Foundation (TCP), Susan Anderson has been offering this advice to TCF shareholders and direct lineal descendants like Beatty for eighteen of the organization's thirty-five years. Established by Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (CIRI), one of Alaska's twelve Alaska Native regional corporations with more than 8,800 shareholders, TCF is one of several programs offered through Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) and other Alaska Native entities that provide educational and training scholarships to high school graduates. Anderson, who has a master's degree in education, is a program alumnus herself, as are all TCF staff. She likens her job to being a "fairy godmother every day" as she connects individuals and organizations to both raise and distribute TCF money.

In addition to creating jobs for shareholders, one of the long-term goals of many ANCs is to be Alaska Native-managed. To help meet this goal, all twelve of the regional corporations and many of the other ANCs have some form of trust like the foundation, though CIRI's $60 million endowment, which funds the foundation, is the largest and one of the oldest. Last year, TCF distributed $2.1 million to scholarship applicants, and this year it is expected to award just over this amount. Since CIRI's inception, it has awarded more than $30 million in 16,000 awards to individuals, organizations, and businesses that advance Alaska Native people.

"Education is the best dividend you can pay anybody," Anderson says of the original thinking behind the program's development. "It is one of the most lasting benefits for individuals because nobody can ever take that away from you--and it changes your personal and family trajectory."

Money is just part of the story, though. Aside from contributing to economic self-sufficiency through education, the complementary--and no less important--part of the foundation's mission is to help develop and maintain pride in the culture and heritage of their shareholders.

Beatty, who is a direct lineal descendant and Dena'ina Athabascan from his mother's side, is the perfect case study of how TCF and its sister organizations would like their scholarship programs to work.

Academically, Beatty, now twenty-nine with regained confidence, decided on a professional path when he discovered an interest in accounting; in 2015 he graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage with a bachelor's degree in that field. Raised in a poor household with little structure, Beatty says that without scholarships from TCF and other programs that offer Alaska Natives academic support, college would not have been possible for him. To date, he has received a total of about $50,000 from TCF, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Ninil-chik Native Association, and Alyeska Pipeline.

Today he is a general ledger accountant for Cook Inlet Tribal Council and participates in their apprenticeship program and the Alaska Native Executive Leadership Program, all in preparation for transitioning into Alaska Pacific University's MBA program next year. From there, he would like to get his CPA license and eventually go on to become an executive leader for an ANC.

The Kuskokwim Corporation

Most scholarship programs like TCF that are geared toward advancing the Alaska Native population are for general tuition support, though recently several are becoming available that fund academic or vocational training programs in specific disciplines.

The Kuskokwim Corporation (TKC), representing ten villages along the Middle Kuskokwim River region, established the Kuskokwim Educational Foundation, which provides scholarships to shareholders in the Middle Kuskokwim River region for college and vocational training. It has awarded more than $600,000 to date. Maver Carey, president and CEO of TKC, was one of the program's first recipients, along with many TKC Board Members.

The Donlin Gold Kuskokwim Education Foundation, for the first time this year, is making $50,000 a year available to TKC shareholders in scholarship education and vocational training funds related to workforce development opportunities resulting from the potential development of the Donlin Gold mine project. Once the mine becomes operational, funding levels will increase. In addition to a separate track for heavy equipment operation and safety training, the foundation will support vocational and professional opportunities needed to support a mining operation.

The cooperative program between TKC and Donlin Gold was developed as a way for Donlin Gold to give back to the Southwest Region in which it will operate by helping create jobs in these communities and to ensure a well-trained labor pool for the proposed project, currently in the permitting phase, which would have an estimated twenty-seven year mine life once constructed.

GCI Hollywood Program

A fellowship program to help promote Alaska Natives in Hollywood was recently launched by GCI and will send two selected content creators--including directors, producers, and playwrights--to the Hollywood Creative Forum in Los Angeles this February. The goal of the $10,000, statewide pilot program is to help students make connections that further their professional careers in the television, film, and digital industry, while promoting Alaska Native culture and content.

"As an Alaska-born and-raised company, GCI works to support and promote Alaska Native culture, whether it's through the programs and services we offer or by advocating for more diverse representation in our industry," Heather Handyside, senior director of corporate communications at GCI, says of the GCI-Walter Kaitz Fellowship Program.

Collaborating with the Walter Kaitz Foundation, a nonprofit that advances diversity within the cable industry and specifically the contributions of women and multi-ethnic cable professionals, the GCI-Walter Kaitz Fellowship serves as a catalyst for increasing diversity in the cable industry's workforce, supplier base, and programming. Finalists are judged, in part, on content creation and industry experience, creativity, their biographies, cover letters, artistic statements, and ability to explain how the forum will help them further their careers. While applicants must have some experience with content creation, the review committee looks for applicants who capture authentic, uniquely Alaskan voices and present unusual storylines, Handyside says.

The 2017 submission deadline has passed; however, Handyside is hopeful that this year's pilot program is a success and will be continued again in the fall of 2018. This year's finalists will be announced at the Anchorage Film festival early this month.

In addition to the Hollywood fellowship, GCI has other programs that also target Alaska Natives and students in rural communities. Over the past decade, the GCI Scholarship Program awarded more than $2 million to college students in the Lower Kuskokwim Region. A different paid internship program helps students gain real-world experience and offers exposure to cutting-edge telecommunications technology while working at GCI.

Entering its third year, the GCI Externship Program, part of its Workforce Development Project, recruits and trains Alaska teachers to participate in a two-week intensive training from GCI's Anchorage and Bethel facilities so they can incorporate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education using an applied approach into their curriculum in rural classrooms.

Cultural Heritage as the Key to Success, Survival

In addition to offering financial backing, many of the scholarship and training programs available through ANCs and other Alaska Native entities include support that focuses on cultural heritage appreciation, preservation, and advancement. While less tangible than a scholarship check, this component is no less important for succeeding in both the workplace and life.

"We know from research that the more grounded a person is, the better they will do in all areas of their lives," Anderson says of TCF and other scholarship programs that focus on cultural knowledge and appreciation. "Knowing who they are culturally gives them resilience and the confidence to do other things--connecting education, culture, and heritage is key."

Beatty did not realize how detached he was from his heritage and culture until, through the help of TCF and Anderson, he found what he had always been looking for: his personal identity.

When he was eight, he and his family moved to Kenai from Olympia, Washington. Coming from a city, he had not grown up subsistence hunting and was not immersed in Alaska Native traditions and cultural ways. If it weren't for his close relationship with his grandmother, Bobbie Oskolkoff, who is responsible for telling him about TCF scholarship opportunities, he may not have realized the significance of what it means to be an Alaska Native.

"I went from feeling like an imposter to being part of it--to being accepted for who I am: I am an Athabascan. I am a CIRI descendant from the Ninilchik area. I am an Alaska Native."

It is this sense of pride and passion, combined with his education and professional experiences, he says, that have completely changed his life. It is why he wants to give back by inspiring others who need support through TCF alumni outreach, and by eventually being part of the next generation of ANC leaders. In October he was a speaker for Indigenous Peoples' Day, and he has spoken to various youth groups. "I have an obligation to make sure Native corporations grow and prosper for as long as they can, just because of what they represent," Beatty says.

When Beatty was an apprentice for Cook Inlet Tribal Council, he was able to choose a mentor at TCF. He requested Anderson and she agreed. Her door has been open to him since. They discuss everything from how to communicate in the workplace to management styles, professional development, self-identity, and how to support the next generation of Alaska Natives and to help them understand the opportunities available through the CIRI family. "She pushes me outside of my comfort zone," he says. "She has made me stretch."

"We are not just a funder," Anderson says. "For many people, we are their only connection, and their only source of encouragement. We are not counselors, but we have had a lot of these conversations over the years and can help them make decisions. We are a trusted source."

Progress for the Next 10,000 Years

First Alaskans Institute (FAI), a nonprofit dedicated to advancing Alaska Natives, approaches this ever-evolving undertaking through more traditional learning models, focusing on developing capacities of people and communities that are built on indigenous methodologies that elevate collective wisdom, rather than "expert-to-student" styles of learning, recognizing that indigenous education follows a continuum that requires community engagement, information and research, collaboration, and leadership development. "We think of it as developing characteristics, not titles," Jorie Ayyu Paoli, vice president and Indigenous Operations director, says. "Leadership is something you do--not something you are."

"Because we don't consider ourselves the experts, we convene and create space to share knowledge more broadly, trying to tap into the collective wisdom in any given room."

Everything FAI does falls into four areas.

The Alaska Native Policy Center advocates for catalyzing Alaska Natives and allies to advance self-determination through dialogue that informs policy-making at all levels and by supporting thriving communities and governance. They advance dialogue throughout Alaska on topics that include racial equity and decolonization, rethinking access and management systems impacting salmon and people, assessing and reimagining how the scientific community engages with indigenous peoples, and discussing and visioning a post-oil economy.

The Indigenous Leadership Continuum recognizes the inherent leadership of indigenous people throughout their lifetimes and intersects with the community at these different life stages. They host the Elders & Youth Conference, held in conjunction with the annual Alaska Federation of Natives Conference, encouraging youth and elders to utilize traditional Native values and practices as the foundation for defining and advancing success for Native communities.

Their summer internship program places Alaska Native graduate and undergraduate students in "partnering organizations" that provide management-level work experience while immersing in cohort-based indigenous learning that taps into the wisdom of their cultures as the foundation for leadership. The public policy fellowship program places interested young Alaska Native leaders in legislative offices in Juneau to give participants hands-on experience working with the legislative and political process.

FAI endeavors to "indigenize" their internal operations through the third operational area: Indigenous Operations. Paoli says, "We recognize that as indigenous peoples working with a vision of progress for the next 10,000 years, we have a much higher standard than most 501(c) (3) nonprofit organizations. As such, we tap into the wisdom that has sustained our cultures for thousands of years to operationalize them into our work, every single day."

Community engagement, the fourth component, is dedicated to being good relatives who contribute to healthy and thriving communities. This includes publishing the First Alaskans magazine to share the diaspora of Alaska Native perspectives and voices of Native peoples, communities and ways of life, and supporting activities that stand in solidarity and reciprocity with Native peoples and the expression, exertion, evolution, and exercise of their voice. "Alaska Native people know best what is best for Alaska Native people," is an operating truth and principle behind everything FAI advances, Paoli says.

By Heidi Bohi

Heidi Bohi is a freelance writer who has written stories about Alaska since 1988.
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Comment:Education and Empowerment: Alaska Native scholarships and training advance culture, heritage, future.(ALASKA NATIVE BUSINESS)
Author:Bohi, Heidi
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Dec 1, 2017
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