College prep program serves rural Alaska students

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska - A program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is designed to ease the transition for rural students entering college and thus ensure their success as college students. Titled the Rural Alaska Honors Institute, it's open to all students in rural villages with a 3.0 grade point average who are interested in attending college. The vast majority of the more than 1,100 students who have gone through RAHI since its inception in 1983 are Alaska Natives, although it is open to everyone.

Denise Wartes, RAHI program coordinator for nearly 20 years, explained how it works.

''Usually we receive about 130 applications. It's a rigorous application, with at least 13 pages to fill out plus recommendations from a community member and a teacher. The student also has to write two essays. A selection committee of eight people reviews each application and makes recommendations as to who should come. We plan to select 60 or 70 this year from all over the state, so their chances are about 50/50.''

The students normally come after their junior year and spend six weeks on campus. This year's term is May 29 to July 13. Selected students are sponsored by the program, which covers the cost of airfare, room and board, textbooks, supplies and local transportation. ''It also includes a $15 a week stipend,'' Wartes explained. ''It's not much, but lots of students come with nothing or students that do have money spend it all the first couple of days.''

Students receive college credit for the classes they take. Required courses include writing, study skills and either Alaska Native dance or swimming. Beyond those classes they have an option of taking several others, including biochemistry, geosciences, business management, engineering or math, and many others. All students must take seven to 10 credits. Many of these classes are sponsored by grants from the National Science Foundation.

''It gives them a head start on college,'' Wartes said. ''Once they finish with RAHI they have a family, so to speak, and come here to UAF with study buddies and roommates. It's a lifelong friendship and they have a common bond in having gone through the program. I also produce a newsletter twice a year that keeps everyone connected: letting others know what they're doing, if they're married, new addresses and the like. The students really love it.''

The majority of the students attend UAF, even though they aren't required to do so. ''We have about 150 RAHI students now at UAF and maybe 40 in Anchorage and another two or three in Juneau, so within the state there's quite a large number. I presently have five students at Dartmouth, one at Harvard, five or six at Haskell and others at any number of schools throughout the nation,'' Wartes said.

RAHI originally began after a series of meetings between UAF and the Alaska Federation of Natives, which was concerned about the retention of Alaska Native and rural students. The program was one of the solutions and now includes 11 second-generation students whose mother or father had gone through it.

Students and former students speak enthusiastically about RAHI.

Wayne Don, Cup'it, was in RAHI in 1989. ''Coming from rural Alaska into a university setting, there were cultural differences. The social aspect was the biggest piece. Even more than the academic preparation was the confidence it gave me to pursue college and a degree. It also gave me a social network to come back to. Community and relationships are two big things you lose when going from a small village to a large urban center. There's a community and relationship built into RAHI you can't replicate anywhere else. That was real important.''

Melody Shangin is an Aleut who said she came to UAF because of RAHI. ''I was admitted into RAHI and made some really good friends. They were coming to UAF and that's why I ended up here.'' Shangin is now a senior majoring in electrical engineering.

Joel Hunt, Yup'ik, is from the Emmonak Tribe. ''RAHI introduced me to college life. It was a challenge, but I got through it. It helped me transfer from a high school setting to a college setting. It's helped out a lot from the writing courses I was taught to the biochemistry I've taken.''

Hunt grew up in a traditional lifestyle with hunting, fishing and traditional dancing. However, he didn't speak his Native language, and he's now taking classes in college to learn it.

Rebecca Church, Yup'ik from the Native village of Kwinhagak, laughed as she said, ''I was very persistent about getting into RAHI. I was on the wait list and I kept calling Denise asking if any spots were open. I really, really wanted to come. Persistence pays off because they were able to find funding for me.'' She is now a sophomore majoring in biology, with hopes of adding rural development as a second major.

Wartes summed up RAHI with these words: ''It's a wonderful program. I really, really believe in it.''