Northwest Campus dedication commemorates buildings programs
With out-of-town dignitaries and elected representatives present, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Northwest Campus dedicated new facilities and celebrated the institution’s continued success at bringing a wide range of education opportunities to the people of the Bering Strait region. The just-completed Leonhard Seppala Arts Building is the most recent of a number of buildings added or brought up to modern standards.
“This is now my chance, the chance for the campus to thank all of you for the support and to rededicate this campus,” said Northwest Campus Director Bob Metcalf, acknowledging the presence of the out-of-town guests. “We want to rededicate it to serving the residents of our region and also to supporting the University of Alaska Fairbanks program.” In the audience were UAF Chancellor Dan White, Vice Chancellor Evon Peter, Alaska Senator Donny Olson and Representative Neal Foster, other officials from the University of Alaska, and local people who have been instrumental in making the Northwest Campus into what it is today.
“The investments made here at the Northwest Campus will ensure that students have the tools necessary to get good jobs in health care, teaching, tribal government, business and accounting, and so much more,” said Metcalf. “This campus is also important to our region because it allows folks from the surrounding villages to stay with their families and continue to work their day jobs to support those families and take classes all at the same time.”
Chancellor Dan White spoke of the passion of the people working at the campus and recalled the passion of student Austin Ahmasuk at UAF over 20 years ago. “You can take a class in trapper hat sewing or you can get involved in world class research right here at the Nome campus,” said White. “There’s ground breaking research in climate change, in fisheries, in biology.” White then introduced Evon Peter, who is vice chancellor in charge of the rural campuses. “He is your tireless advocate.”
Peter described the staff as “a really dynamic team of people who are dedicated to the mission of serving this region, of creating a welcoming, supportive environment for everybody who comes into these halls of the university here and for extending support to the students to succeed in the programs offered. It’s a stellar group of faculty and staff, many of whom have been here for a long time.”
Bob Metcalf once again took the microphone and thanked the construction workers who’ve been so busy at the campus over the past few years. With space tight they held classes at the facilities of partners such as the Nome Public Schools. “Partners pitched in and worked with us,” he said. “They kept our books safe and dry and warm for a year. Evon was willing to invest funding that enabled the finishing of projects, and always at a critical period.”
Next up was Nancy Mendenhall, director of the Northwest Campus from the mid-80s to the mid-90s. She announced right off that she wasn’t going to talk about buildings but rather the programs, which evolved as they made the transition from an independent community college to being a College of Rural Alaska under the UAF.
“Looking back it seems to me the college went from one crisis to another during that period,” said Mendenhall. “We survived miraculously. We can thank the determination by rural people and their representatives to not lose these rural community college sites. There were people in the urban centers who did not value them highly.” As oil revenue began to decline legislators began to ask why the state had such expensive rural locations. Many were in favor of closing them. “But fortunately we had a strong bush caucus in the legislature that stopped that idea of totally closing the rural colleges.”
Mendenhall went on to describe how falling oil revenues led to budget tightening and somebody came up with the idea to turn the rural colleges into branches of UAF. Six of them became the rural campuses, saving on administrative costs. Around this time the internet was appearing and technology was viewed as the solution to a lot of the problems of rural education.
“We were worried about the equipment and with good reason. It frequently failed,” she said. There were no computers, students mailed in their work.
In 1989 the college went to Magadan, a port town at the Sea of Okhotsk, led by Jim Stimpfle, to organize an exchange of students. That first step developed into a healthy relationship with thousands of young Russians studying in Alaska, mostly in Anchorage.
Despite the huge cuts the rural campuses have flourished. “I would say we’ve done amazingly well here,” said Mendenhall. “Obviously the university has made the right choice in holding on to its rural campuses. Especially if they’re as productive as this one.”
Dr. Barb Amarok spoke next. She spoke of the Northwest Campus not only growing in facilities but in the relevant services it provides to the region. “Northwest Campus is partnered with all the major organizations in the region and also with many of the smaller ones to promote the cultural, social, and economic advancement of our residents and communities. Courses and programs have included dual credit and summer programs for high school students in the region, the high latitude range management program, office and business management courses, Alaska Native language courses, construction trades courses. Courses are taught by our local experts in the areas of skin sewing, parka making, carving, four-wheeler maintenance, and poetry and non-fiction writing.
“What has been important to me personally is that Northwest Campus has partnered with the schools to provide preparation and orientation to teaching in schools where the majority of the student population is Inupiaq, Yupik, or of St. Lawrence Island Yupik culture. Culturally responsible schooling is being addressed at both local and statewide levels.”
She also praised the school for recognizing that students in this region have families, full-time jobs, and other responsibilities. “In the Bering Straits region these are the traditional students. And when we take six or seven or fifteen years to complete a degree, we are the leaders and we are the role models.”
Gay Sheffield spoke on the importance of science at the Northwest Campus and the capacity to support research. “The big story has been the loss of ice,” she said. The Strait Science series, open to all members of the community, began with the arrival of the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy and the Russian tanker Renda and last week saw the 93rd seminar in the series. Sheffield spoke of the importance of the lab for scientists both local and international.
Towards the end, Bob Metcalf said, “Let’s do a resolution.” While the commemoration was organized to recognize nine years of improving buildings and facilities the resolution also noted the other contributions of the campus. In summary the resolution praises the excellent opportunity for academic and vocational community education to the Bering Strait region. The vision is that Northwest Campus will provide programs to meet students’ personal and educational goals to contribute to the success of the community. The mission of UAF College of Rural and Community Development is to provide academic and vocational education and outreach that promotes workforce preparation, economic development, lifelong learning, and community development with an emphasis on Alaska Native and underserved communities.
Once the resolution was signed the King Island Dancers took over.