Ilisagvik College President Pearl Brower (Iñupiat) is used to the long, dark, cold winters at the nation’s northernmost tribal college—just north of the Arctic Circle. Brower was born and raised in Barrow on the North Slope of Alaska. The North Slope covers 89,000 square miles, between the northern margin of the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean.
Actually, she laughs, she was born in Anchorage. “The hospitals here [in Barrow] in 1980 didn’t have the best of medical care,” she says. She lived on the North Slope until she was almost nine years old, when her grandmother in northern California became ill. The family migrated south to help manage one of her ranches, and throughout her childhood, Brower went back and forth between Alaska and California. “I laugh with people because we think Barrow is very rural—and it is, we have no roads in and out and it’s a small, Arctic community— but in northern California I was in an even smaller setting,” she says. “I feel very lucky: I got to live a subsistence lifestyle here, whaling, and was also able to learn ranching [in California].” Such an upbringing offered her two different perspectives on life and rural subsistence agriculture. That molded her, she says, “and made me realize how important it is for individuals to keep their subsistence lifestyles and have a real say in how they live.”
Brower graduated from high school as valedictorian, then attended the University of Nevada – Reno. Injuries from a car accident during her first semester prompted a move back with her family in California where she earned an associate degree from Shasta Community College in Redding, CA. After that, she moved north again and earned bachelor’s degrees in both anthropology and Alaska Native studies from the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. After graduation, she was recruited to come home to Barrow, she says, which was “perfect” and “exactly where I wanted to be.”
In 2004, she began working at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, and then a few years later, the tribal college. Taking advantage of distance learning, in 2007 she started working toward a master’s degree from the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. “Then the opportunity to take on the presidency came this spring: I was on maternity leave, having my first child, and the trustees asked me to come back a month earlier,” she says. “I was honored and happy to do that— and hit the ground running.”
Her educational background has served her well as she has assumed the presidency. Not only is the North Slope home to Brower, but she’s also familiar with community colleges and distance learning.
EDUCATION, NORTH SLOPE STYLE
Ilisagvik College is different from other tribal colleges, explains Brower. It’s not on a reservation, for instance. The North Slope borough, as it’s called, consists of eight communities and a total population of 7,000 people spread across a region the size of Oklahoma. Barrow itself includes about 4,000 people; then there are seven outlying communities that range in size from 200 to 700 people. These villages are isolated— accessible only by airplane or, in the case of a few coastal communities, by barge during the summer.
This means the tribal college has to serve students both in the classroom and via distance learning. Brower explains that even the most isolated villages have Internet access. “Our elders, and those that have passed, worked really hard to make sure we are technologically as advanced as we can be,” she says, acknowledging that for many tribal communities in the lower 48 states, access to the Internet can be much more difficult. “We feel very lucky that on the North Slope—because we have funding from oil—we are almost on par with other areas of the country.”
In Barrow, the tribal college has between 600 and 800 students each semester; that accounts for about 80% of students. The rest are served onsite in their villages through distance learning.
LOOKING BACK, AND AHEAD
Born in 1980, Pearl Brower says she has a lot to learn from many of the tribal college movement’s longtime presidents and elders. She especially appreciates attending American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) meetings and spending time with other presidents. “The amount of knowledge that I can gain from our other tribal college presidents is really wonderful and amazing,” she says. “I feel really lucky that we do have those presidents who have been within the movement and at their colleges for so long. I can really grow from them and learn from them.”
Brower is also aware of the role model she can provide for Ilisagvik College students and other young people living on Alaska’s North Slope. She has a very large family on the North Slope and comes from a line of white whalers and hunters. She always looked up to her grandfather—a culture-bearer who walked the entire North Slope—and her grandmother who was an active member of the local school board. “Every once in a while—and this is really emotional and heart-touching—someone who knew her will say, ‘I see that in you,’ or ‘She stood up for things like that, too,’ ” says Brower. “What that makes me feel like is, I want to make sure my daughter and my grandchildren can say those same things about me.” Brower quickly adds that she doesn’t mean to put herself “up.” She just means that she wants to leave a legacy of what’s possible for Natives living on the North Slope.
“As a young Native woman, I want to give our young students a real opportunity to think about the future and what they can be when they grow up,” she says. She wants children growing up on the North Slope to have economic opportunities—to become doctors and lawyers and to own their own businesses— and opportunities to learn about and nurture their own culture. “I want them to see they can do what I’m doing….And I want to make sure many of us are really assisting and creating a sustainable community as we move forward.”