This past school year, Iḷisaġvik College initiated a new scholarship program aimed at bringing Alaska Native and American Indian students to the Arctic for a semester of study and cultural learning.
According to Dan Wall, associate professor of social sciences, faculty had been discussing the idea of offering this program for many years based on their sense that people from outside the North Slope would be interested in spending a semester in the Arctic.
The program was created mainly to attract students from other Tribal Colleges but American Indian and Alaska Native students enrolled in four-year programs were also contacted.
Hall added, "We were interested in getting students with experiences that would be comparable to those of our own students, but not exactly the same. We wanted to see if we could stir up conversations about what's different and what's similar in the hopes that our own students could benefit from the discussion as well as the exchange students."
Ilisagvik covers all expenses for students under this program, including airfare, housing, and meals. Students in the program take five courses: two have a cultural focus and the other three are more general for students to earn credits that will be transferable to the student's home college.
Courtney Bunker was the first student to spend a semester at Ilisagvik under this program. She is enrolled as a full-time student at White Earth Tribal and Community College majoring in the humanities, arts and social sciences.
Bunker said she was interested in attending the program because she had been unaware that there even was a Tribal College in Alaska, had never been to Alaska, and the whole idea fascinated her.
"I took 'Alaska, Land and its People' and the 'Arctic Colloquium' course," she said.
Both were so helpful and interesting to me. (We were) able to go hunting, to a whaling camp, made an atiqluk pattern, made traditional foods and just so much more." Bunker went on to say that she was able to get much more involved with the community and culture than she had expected.
"It was really awesome, too, that the 'homework' was mostly just to attend the cultural hours on Friday," she said. "It was really fun to do something different every week. I just learned that, to me, everyone was so inviting and inclusive. They were more than happy to share what they knew and what they were doing, with me."
According to Wall, this was the program's pilot year. Based on the experience, the college plans to offer it again next year and will contact Tribal Colleges as well as other colleges with Native American students to offer the opportunity.
If Bunker is any example, the program seems to be a great success in educating students about the Arctic and allowing for cultural exchanges with Native American tribes from all over the country.
As Bunker said as she left for home, "I would absolutely, 100 percent, recommend this program to others. This was such an amazing experience. I am so grateful that I was able to experience something like this. I think if people have the opportunity they should take it. Alaska is so beautiful."
For more information on this program, contact Dan Wall at 907-855-0753.