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Hometown U: Struggle and self-reliance produce Chevak's first engineer

Mike Ulroan, UAA's 2014 commencement speaker and the first engineer in the history of Chevak, poses for a photo in his apartment in Anchorage, Alaska Monday, April 28, 2014.
Philip Hall
Inspirational messages hang on the wall of Mike Ulroan's apartment in Anchorage, Alaska Monday, April 28, 2014.
Philip Hall

One detail reveals a lot about college student Michael Ulroan, 26, of Chevak. In September, he typed these words on a piece of paper:

"I will be the 2014 commencement speaker for the UAA Graduating class."

He taped it front and center on his study desk, tucked beneath the only window in his tiny apartment off Tudor Road.

This afternoon, he'll deliver that seven-minute address before thousands of graduates and their families at a packed Sullivan Arena.

"It still feels like a dream," he said. "Out of so many ways this could have gone, it ended up the way I wanted." The power behind that intent still scares him.

Ulroan has the kind of character that leads to success. From childhood in Chevak through college in Anchorage, high expectations were consistent -- from his family, his high school running coach, the Anchorage philanthropist who decided to pay his way to college, to the director of a UAA program that guides Alaska Natives toward science and engineering degrees, ANSEP.

The result is a young man with a remarkable capacity for self-reliance. His speech today opens with: "Repeat after me: "Nothing can stop me from reaching my goal."

But such pomp-and-circumstance glory was hardly guaranteed for Ulroan. His academic career, aiming toward the civil engineering degree he earns today, took him eight long and hard years, double the time it should have.

When he got to UAA as a freshman in 2006, he wasn't ready.

"There's a gap between rural Alaska and the urban education system. It takes a few years to catch up," he said.

That "gap" led to struggles like this: remedial math; remedial writing; failing classes; taking them again. "When I told my mentor I failed chemistry," Ulroan recalled, "he just said, 'Well, you have to take it again. It's not a race.' "

Ulroan crumpled under the weight of his own academic ambition and the curve balls life tossed his way. His mom was diagnosed with cancer. His dad had heart surgery. He lost a cousin so close he called him brother.

"I broke down, all the time," he says, tears rimming his eyes. "I was breaking down every day there, for the longest time." In his darkest moments, he drew strength from his girlfriend, Jessica Schneider, a biochemistry major from Akiachak who shares his determination to succeed.

But there's an unquenchable spirit within Ulroan. Sitting in an engineering and science study hall the Friday before his last week of undergraduate finals, he looked both burdened and resolved.

His approach to getting through tough times is to draw upon an enormous well of inspiration, literally hundreds of quotes that he's gathered on his computer and iPad. They pepper his apartment walls.

"I think all that matters is that you keep going. Keep trying," he said. "It's the only thing you really need to do." He's a scrappy Rocky Balboa blessed with one Cinderella moment.

That moment dates back to a 2005 Daily News sports feature documenting Chevak's tenacious high school cross-country running team, inspired to four consecutive regional victories by coach Harry Ferguson, Ulroan's uncle by marriage.

"Before that, we were never known to be good runners. We were from a small village, a small school," Ulroan said. But over a decade and a half, Ferguson developed a team that could run their hearts out, despite rain, wind and bone-chilling cold. They peaked as Ulroan went through high school.

Cathy Rasmuson of Anchorage read that story and called Ferguson. "I want to send those three seniors (Ulroan and two others) to college," she said. And she did.

The first time she met Uroan for lunch at Subway, "He was just this tiny, scared 18-year-old, telling me about making rap songs and killing his first seal."

After a few years, she sensed he wasn't progressing toward the engineering degree he had come to earn. "I finally said, 'Mike, you have to start taking some real classes.' " She sought out Herb Schroeder, director of ANSEP, and asked him to look out for Ulroan.

That worked, beautifully. Schroeder became a mentor, the one who counseled Ulroan to take it a step at a time and always move forward.

As it happens, that advice fell on particularly fertile ground. Ulroan's tenacity goes all the way back to how Teresa and David Ulroan raised him.

By phone from Chevak, his retired schoolteacher mother explained her parenting ways: "We let them know right away how much we love them," she said. "Then, as they learned language and became more aware, we told them they have potential."

Then she and her husband, David, invited their five children to prove it -- over and over and over. Says Mike Ulroan, "I learned not to ask for something if I can find it myself."

That brand of self-reliance is a deeply held traditional value, Teresa Ulroan said; her son has it, in spades.

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.