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Native Corporations underwrite education: distance learning, rural campuses support job preparation.


A few years ago, Mary Viveiros set out to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse. Educational opportunities were scarce, however. She and her 10 children lived in Kotzebue, but the nearest nursing school was 560 miles away in Anchorage.

Viveiros went to the Chukchi Campus of the University of Alaska and requested money to move to Anchorage to study pre-nursing, but was turned down. Then Maniilaq Association stepped in. The Alaska Native nonprofit organization for the NANA region provided scholarships for Viveiros, brought professors in, helped pay for instructors, equipment and facilitate a partnership with Weber State University for a distance education nursing program. Viveiros especially credits Phyllis Boskofsky, saying, "She was instrumental in making it happen for a nursing program to come to me."

Through a combination of distance and face-to-face classes, Viveiros became a registered nurse in 2005 and earned a degree in health care administration. She recruited other students and today the village of about 3,000 in remote Northwest Alaska has a thriving campus and is helping train its own health care workers.

Viveiros, who now works for the Maniilaq Association, is grateful for the opportunities. "I am very happy to be working for Maniilaq and my people," she says. "The smile on the elders' face is very welcoming and rewarding to me when I walk into their hospital room to take care of them."


Lincoln Saito, director of the Chukchi Campus, credits Maniilaq for making the nursing program possible and improving health care opportunities in the remote region.


The regional corporations had two mandates: to foster economic growth and to provide for the well-being of their shareholders, who number about 100,000 today.

Initially, the corporations set up scholarship funds, helping educate thousands of shareholders--some of whom today play important roles in Alaska Native corporations and have assumed other leadership positions.

Helping boost higher education is one of the best dividends Native organizations can pay, says Susan Anderson, a Cook Inlet Region Inc. scholarship recipient.

Anderson received one of the first CIRI scholarships in the early 1980s. Today, CIRI has given out more than 10,000 awards totaling more than $14 million. Anderson is the president and CEO of the CIRI Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Anchorage-based corporation.

"I'm really fortunate to have had the for-profit side of CIRI think so far in advance," she says.

A scholarship through The CIRI Foundation helped Whitney Leman earn her degree at Eastern Oregon University last spring, where she also played basketball. Now she's the program assistant at The CIRI Foundation helping other students fill out paperwork and find grants and scholarships to further their educations.

"It was a big deal," Leman says of the $5,000 annual TCF scholarship. "I'm just so glad I'm not in debt. I have no student loans."

Will Anderson, a shareholder in the Koniag region, which encompasses Kodiak, received a scholarship from the Koniag when he was in school. It motivated him to join the Koniag board of directors. He worked for a Koniag subsidiary in Washington, D.C., then became the chief financial officer for Koniag. In 2006, Anderson was named Koniag's president and CEO.

In addition to scholarships, Koniag also has mentoring and internship programs for shareholders.

"We're really working hard to help them get an education, but help them get some work experience as well," he says. "We want them to come to work for our subsidiaries."


The University of Alaska has three university and 13 community campuses--many in the rural areas of the state. In Kotzebue, the core of the student body is made of up people in their 40s. For Saito, the goal is to keep these highly motivated adults in their communities where they can help improve the quality of life for others.

"Where you graduate from is where you stay," he says.

In Viveiros' case, if she had gone to nursing school in Anchorage, she and her children would likely have stayed in the city, he said.

"As it was, she stayed here," Saito says. "This is where her family is. Her relatives helped with the kids. She had the support which she would have had to pay for in Anchorage."

Kotzebue not only gained a nursing program, but also is educating health care workers with strong ties to the region. It gives Maniilaq a local base of workers for its hospital and health clinics. Other programs aim to create jobs in villages.

"If we recruit our own and they stay here, then it continues to serve us," Saito says. "It's the same rule for teachers. It's the same rule for pilots."

The Rural Alaska Native Adult (RANA) distance education program at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage has the same goals--to provide opportunities for higher education to students in remote, far-flung communities.

Since it was begun 10 years ago, students in the RANA program have gotten significant scholarships from the 12 regional Native corporations and some village corporations, says Esther Beth Sullivan, Ph.D. and director of distance education at RANA.

"The AFN (Alaska Federation of Natives) and ANCSA leadership--their advocacy for education has been tremendous," Sullivan says. "There is so much attention on trying to help shareholders access education at all levels."

Using distance-education technology, students can attend classes while staying in their villages. It helps them keep their jobs, and earning a degree helps leaders in the villages get recognized for their leadership abilities, said Deborah McLean-Nelson, director of the Bristol Bay campus in Dillingham.

There, 62 percent of the students are Alaska Natives, says McLean-Nelson. Many of the undergraduate courses lead to Associates of Arts degrees and students can also work toward a bachelor's degree in rural development.

The campus has a strong partnership with Bristol Bay Native Corp., which offers scholarships, training and mentoring programs. Its "Training Without Walls" program is a two-year program to train leaders and people who can move into leadership positions with the corporations or the companies they are working with, McLean-Nelson says.

In response to a strong need for office workers in the region, the Bristol Bay campus is partnering with BBNC this semester to train clerical workers. It also has land management programs and other programs tailored to the emerging development issues in the region. It's a good situation for everyone, McLean-Nelson says.

"People get the training, it's connected to jobs and they get university credit," she says. "It can help them move into different career ladders and different career pathways."


On the larger campuses, high dropout rates have been cause for concern. In many cases, students from rural schools were unprepared for the course work or were overwhelmed by urban life. At the Anchorage campus, only 1 in 10 Native students who enrolled in 2000 had earned a bachelor's degree six years later, according to the university.


In 1997, Barrow-based Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the University of Alaska Fairbanks teamed up to build Inupiat House, a residential facility designed to improve the recruitment, retention and graduation of Alaska Native students. The family style facility was designed to make rural students feel at home in the middle of the bustling campus. Traditional Native foods such as caribou, salmon and whale meat were frequently served.

The university also has several programs that aim to ease culture shock encountered among rural and urban, high school and college experiences.

Every summer, dozens of rural and Alaska Native students attend the Rural Alaska Honors Institute, which was created at the request of the Alaska Federation of Natives in 1983. The six-week program at UAF is designed to help high-achieving students bridge the gap, socially and academically, between high school and college.

The Alaska Natives in Science and Engineering program, based mostly in Anchorage, starts its outreach efforts in high school, says Kate Ripley, director of public affairs for the University of Alaska. The program tries to prepare high school students for the college course work needed to get into an engineering program.

"It's a really close community of students who are in that program supporting each other," Ripley says.

The number of Alaska Native graduates has doubled in the past 10 years, although Ripley noted the overall numbers were still small.

"That's a significant improvement, but we know we have a ways to go," she says, adding that the university hopes to double graduation rates again in the next 10 years.


The Native corporations are also looking beyond individual scholarships and programs. In February, the corporation CEOs and the University of Alaska announced a partnership to help build curricula for vocational and technical training, research and community outreach.

"We have a lot of work that we do with the Native community," says project coordinator Karen Perdue, associate vice president for Health Programs at the University of Alaska. "The issue here is how do we meet the needs of the ANCSA corporations as employers while meeting the needs of the tribal health organizations?"

It is doing some analysis with the State Department of Labor about what jobs should be emphasized at the associate and certificate level.

"I think there's a real heavy work component," Perdue says.

Sheri Buretta, chairman of the Chugach Alaska Corp. board of directors, said the original idea was to design an entire curriculum, "then we just started brainstorming on what other areas we could strengthen."

Many of the corporations are sending workers back east to take classes on government contracting and project management, Buretta said. Those classes should be available in Alaska.

The goal is to train Alaskans--not just Native shareholders--in Alaska to work on Alaska-based job sites, Koniag's Anderson says.

"We are becoming such a big role in the state economy," Anderson said of the Native corporations. "We want to have a big pool of qualified workers throughout Alaska."

The curriculum would include courses on Alaska Native culture and history, technical and vocational training. Another goal is to help educate Alaskans about the ANCSA corporations and the potential they hold for Alaska. It seeks to strike a balance between jobs and education.

"I think it's a balancing act," Buretta says. "On one hand, there are a lot of pressing social issues that need to be addressed. Acceptance and tolerance need to begin with understanding.

"It's not just an entitlement that we have these corporations. There was a lot that was given up in the settlement of these aboriginal claims to the land, and I think people need to understand that."
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Title Annotation:NATIVE BUSINESS
Comment:Native Corporations underwrite education: distance learning, rural campuses support job preparation.(NATIVE BUSINESS)
Author:Stricker, Julie
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:May 1, 2009
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