Iḷisaġvik’s Vicennial: Alaska’s Tribal College Turns 20

Nov 8th, 2015 | By | Category: Online features, Web Exclusive
By Elise Patkotak


It was not all that long ago, two generations at best, when the Iñupiat of the North Slope barely dared to dream of a day when their children could go to a local high school. Now, thanks to the wisdom and courage of those who fought to make that unbelievable dream a reality, students on the North Slope can go from preschool through junior college without leaving home. Not only that, but they can go to a college that treasures their cultural values and encourages the very language their grandparents were forbidden to speak in school.

This year, Iḷisaġvik College celebrates its vicennial anniversary. In the past 20 years, it has achieved all that its founders had hoped for and then some. “One of the most important things about Iḷisaġvik, I believe, is the amazing amount of success we’ve had in only a short 20 years,” says Iḷisaġvik College president Pearl Brower. “When we consider that Harvard, who most agree to be the first ‘institution of higher education,’ was founded almost 400 years ago, while tribal colleges have only been around less than 50, and Iḷisaġvik only 20, the fact that we have matriculated over 1,000 students is incredibly important.”

ilisagvik-studentsBrower pointed out that the continued support of the North Slope Borough and all the people in its villages shows the importance the Iñupiat place on post-secondary education. “I believe that the support is also saying — yes, we are Indigenous, we are Native, but we are also trained in Western ways. We can compete on a global level. With more education and training, we will be able to do even more in the future,” says Brower. “It is important that we continue to support traditional learning and knowledge, but also work toward walking in both worlds. Combining the two will make the best life possible for future generations.”

Former North Slope Borough mayor, George Ahmaogak, who was a central figure in the development of post-secondary education in the region, also stresses the important role that Iḷisaġvik has played. “The college has gone above and beyond my expectations by being a tribal college which is now accredited by the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities,” he says. “I am very proud that the tribal college has provided a learning environment that promotes and strengthens Iñupiat culture, language, values and traditions.”

The effort to establish a place for post-secondary education on the North Slope began almost as soon as the North Slope Borough was born with the creation of Iñupiat University of the Arctic. Although that effort eventually faltered, the idea never died. In 1986, the North Slope Borough established the North Slope Higher Education Center. Eventually the name was changed to Arctic Sivunmun Iḷisaġvik College, and in 1993 the institution merged with a North Slope workforce development program. The alliance led to new facilities to support developing vocational education opportunities for North Slope residents.

Alaska State House Representative Ben Nageak was hired to help start the workforce development program. In 1995, when the college and the program were combined into the newly named Iḷisaġvik College, Dr. Shirley Holloway, former North Slope Borough School District superintendent and one-time state education commissioner, was asked to be the president. She, in turn, requested Representative Nageak to come on board as vice president.

ilisagvik-students2“In twenty years, Iḷisaġvik College has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. It was nationally certified and became the only tribal college in Alaska,” Nageak reflects. “We had great women as presidents such as Dr. Shirley Holloway, Dr. Edna Maclean, Beverly Grinage and another Barrow-born leader, Pearl Brower Darling. Congratulations to Iḷisaġvik College and its leaders. Keep it going far into the future.” Holloway agrees, adding, “Many visionary leaders and community members came together to launch Iḷisaġvik College. It is so wonderful to see how the college has continued to grow in its ability to meet the workforce and academic needs of the people of the North Slope. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to be a small part of the evolution of this terrific college.”

And what an evolution it has been. Since it opened its doors, Iḷisaġvik has amassed some impressive statistics. It has awarded 158 Associate of Arts degrees, 443 certificates, 129 endorsements, and 396 GED diplomas. Given that the majority of those were conferred on local residents, the college has had significant impact on the skilled labor available in the local workforce. In fact, Iḷisaġvik College has been so successful in its mission that it now accepts students from all over Alaska and the rest of the United States.

President Brower acknowledges that the road has not always been easy and that higher education still faces some formidable obstacles. She points out that local students often struggle to complete a semester when they are called home for subsistence activities or are simply homesick and unable to focus on their coursework. But she adds, “Our numbers continue to grow and our reach extends further each year. We have over 700 students a semester attending Iḷisaġvik. There is a change in attitude towards higher education among our residents and I know it’s because the college is such a positive and life-changing force on the Slope.”

Perhaps noted Iñupiaq linguist and former college president Edna Maclean said it best when she stated, “It’s the best thing that happened for education on the North Slope. It allows our people to remain in their homes and continue their subsistence lifestyle while participating in the new economy, which is so different from that of our ancestors. It also gives students a place to hone their academic skills in a supportive environment should they want to go on to a four year program or other specialty study.” Maclean added, “Their ABE/GED program is critical for some students to get a better start in life if they didn’t do well in high school. And that is a wonderful safety net to help them find work and be able to support their families.”

Over the years, it is clear that for many students Iḷisaġvik College has opened the doors to the future. It continues to find new and innovative ways to bring post-secondary education to even the smallest and most remote villages through online classes. As broadband service improves across the Alaskan arctic, this effort will continue to grow with it. One way or another, Iḷisaġvik College will push forward towards its goal of giving every North Slope resident a brighter future through education.

Elise Patkotak is a journalist who works in Alaska and the North Slope. This article is reprinted with permission from the Arctic Sounder.

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