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Hometown U: With UAA's diverse students, sometimes data doesn't tell the story

It's no surprise to say that UAA has a diverse and international student population. Athletic achievements among its Kenyan runners and European skiers make headlines.

The latest data from the fall semester underscores the fact: a third of UAA's 18,000 students are Native Hawaiian, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native or African American.

But headlines and spreadsheets don't always tell the human story. Here are two more ways to understand just how diverse UAA is. One is by meeting a single, unusual student. The other is by inviting you to watch from the sidelines at a special event that closed out fall semester.

First, meet Michelle Goolio; she went to elementary school by camel.

On Sundays, her mother or father would hitch up a small cart and travel about five hours from the family yurt to a nearby small town. Michelle stayed the week with an aunt. On Fridays, her mom picked her up. Junior high and high school were much the same.

The Goolios are Mongolian herders in the Gobi Desert. Michelle is the youngest of six, and the only one to attempt college. She'll graduate from UAA this May with a bachelor's degree in social work.

How did a young woman from Genghis Kahn's home territory end up in Anchorage?

I learned about Goolio from one of her professors, who left a message about this remarkable young woman determined to go back to Mongolia and introduce better health services for rural herders.

We met for a chat at a campus cafeteria late one December afternoon. Michelle is only a name she adopted for ease of use in America; her Mongolian first name is Tumenkhishig. She's 27.

Her mother, who only went to fourth grade, wanted her to become a herder like her brothers and sisters; she had an intuitive knack with animals and could always bring home the strays. She was a competitive horse racer in the annual Naadam festival.

Despite her talents, Goolio saw the herding life as hard and boring; she longed for the city. "I wanted to wear pink," she says, not the drab grays and greens of the herders.

When several bitter winters and summers took half the family's livestock, her mother relented. Diversifying family skills might be a good idea. Her family sold half the remaining animals to afford an expensive, one-year English-as-a-second-language school in Los Angeles.

Goolio's first plane ride came in 2006 when she flew from Mongolia to South Korea, and on to Los Angeles. She landed with a few suitcases and knowing not a word of English.

Within a year, she had basic English skills and began looking for an American university. She heard about an opportunity in Alaska, where Mongolia's president visited in 2007 and arranged with the University of Alaska for young Mongolians to pay resident tuition. He foresaw the need for engineers and other professionals to develop Mongolia's copper, gold and coal. Mongolia's strategic location -- between Russia on the north and China to the west, east and south -- makes its democracy significant to the U.S.

Goolio applied for the special program and was accepted. To pay tuition, she worked on the campus horticulture crew; an Anchorage family gave her a place to live. Instead of mining, health care is her passion, based on her unsuccessful attempts to get her father medical help at the big hospital in Ulan Bator.

"Herders are looked down upon, not respected," she said. "Even though we had an appointment, they moved people ahead of him." After years of poor care, he died of a heart attack in 2009. Her eyes well with tears when she thinks about going home after graduation. She's been away seven years; he was alive when she left.

Based on her social work education and exposure to places like the Hickel House, Hospice and the Ronald McDonald House, Goolio is committed to raising money to build a place for rural herders to stay when they come to the city for medical care.

If Goolio tells one story of student diversity, the fall graduation celebration hosted by UAA's Multicultural Center tells 14 more. That was the number of non-traditional and students of color who took the stage Dec. 15 to celebrate their higher education.

It felt like a working-class version of graduation. Many of these students have been going to school, raising kids and working--all at the same time. They weren't always confident this moment would arrive.

The ceremony took place in a campus cafeteria with music from a string quartet. There were no caps and gowns and no "Pomp and Circumstance" marches. Instead there were grandmothers, parents, children, friends and loyal spouses.

It was surprisingly emotional. During the "Rose Dedication," each graduate received a single purple rose, stepped to the mic, and dedicated that bloom to a person or persons who helped him or her succeed.

Rachel Bursey, a new graduate in Human Services, dissolved into tears when it came to thanking her children for being patient while she pursued this dream. Deborah Morales appreciated her Peruvian parents, who came to America for a better life. She earned an electrical engineering degree.

Larry Jones lost both his parents this year, making the last push for his engineering degree especially tough. "I've been at this a long time," he said. "I finally did it."

UAA's leaders were there to express pride and lead the new graduates in an 'Oath of Dedication' that ended with the words:

"Remembering always, that with every open door, there comes a responsibility to share with those who follow. We dedicate ourselves to set the example, to always press forward, to never forget."

For these determined graduates, there was at least one free lunch. The multicultural center hosted a banquet for all their families and friends, a fitting end to a good day.

Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.


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The daughter of Mongolian herders in the Gobi Desert, TumenkhishigGoolio will graduate from UAA with a bachelor's of social work in May. She's headed home to improve health care services for rural people like herself.


(Four versions, all the same, just in color or B&W).

Data from the Fall 2012 Opening report, dated 9/28/2012. Prepared by UAA's Office of Institutional Research.