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Rural Alaska students get taste of college experience.


ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- They were difficult to miss: 26 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 college 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.

Alexie and students from several Yukon and Kuskokwim River villages spent a 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.

The students studied prices at Fred Meyer, learning how much it would cost to stock a dorm room. There was rock climbing On one day, groups of students were dropped off in downtown Anchorage with their supervisors and had 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.

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 there's a lot of negative social pressure that they get from their own community," camp director Matthew Turner said.

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 academic enrichment programs or competing in the Native Youth Olympics.

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 Natives, while Alaska Natives and American Indians account for more than 15 percent of the overall state population.

Many of the Take Wing students passed up subsistence hunting and fishing this summer for the taste of campus life.

Six of the students are from Toksook Bay, where families each summer store 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 have been beluga hunting with her older brother had she stayed home.

Instead, she made her first trip to Anchorage and is thinking of becoming a pilot.

Among the 22 villages in the rural Lower Kuskokwim School District, which serves a 22,000-square-mile area, only 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.

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Author:Hopkins, Kyle
Publication:Community College Week
Date:Aug 9, 2010
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