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Chevak students win 'million-dollar' Gates scholarships

Suzanna Caldwell

The small Cup'ik community of Chevak in Western Alaska is home to about 1,000 people, and against steep odds, two of them have been selected to have their higher education completely paid for.

Two of the 21 seniors graduating this year from the Chevak School were awarded the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship last month. The highly competitive scholarship -- there were 52,000 applicants from around the country this year -- pays for all of a student's higher education, all the way through a doctorate program, if they choose to pursue such a degree.

The girls -- Kyla Fermoyle and Mary Pingayak, valedictorian and salutatorian of this year's Chevak graduating class, respectively -- are two of four Gates winners from Alaska. The other Alaska winners are Martina May Brown of Ketchikan and William Wood of West Valley High School in Fairbanks. The first three all participated in the "Talk Story, Write Story" program, a workshop that focuses on applying for the scholarship, which is awarded to low-income, high-performing students across the nation. It is funded through a $1.6 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Applying for the scholarship is a rigorous process, according to Jeanne Campbell, resource director for the Chevak School and mentor to Pingayak and Fermoyle. Not only must students meet certain GPA and socioeconomic requirements, they must complete eight in-depth essays exploring their backgrounds, culture and personal histories. Both students have been working on the essays since September of last year.

"You get a really big picture of the student," Campbell said from Chevak last week. "They have to dig deep."

But beyond the scholarship, the benefits have had a ripple effect through the small community of Chevak. Pingayak said the process taught her that her personal story of growing up in the village with seven brothers and sisters is an experience that makes her unique. Fermoyle said the writing process made her feel "beautiful" by recognizing that her strength through difficult situations -- like being bullied -- made her resilient.

It's also served as an inspiration for other students at the school looking to pursue higher education.

An assembly last week was held to honor both girls. Normally the assemblies are rowdy affairs, Campbell said. But when it came time to talk about the scholarship and the girls' achievements, Campbell said all of the students were attentive and focused.

"They saw that being smart is cool. It's not nerdy," Campbell said.

At that assembly, Kashunamiut School Board President John Atchak told the students that if they are going to keep their way of life going, they have to get an education.

Atchak said that when he graduated from school in Chevak in 1980, things were more difficult. He didn't have access to counselors who could help him navigate scholarships and college. It was more about surviving than going to college.

"The land provided everything and education came next," Atchak said. "Now it's flipped-flopped."

Gone are the days when people could survive on subsistence alone, he said. Buying nets, boats and gas costs money; money, he said, comes from getting a good education.

Campbell, who is already eyeing future Gates applicants, is optimistic the students understand that.

"Hopefully it hits home," Campbell said.

'The million-dollar scholarship'

Last April, Campbell flew to Bethel to attend a Talk Story, Write Story workshop. The program has previously worked to get low-income Native Hawaiian students prepared for the scholarship by helping them refine the essays through a creative writing workshop. Led by former journalist Tad Bartimus and her husband, Dean Wariner, an educator and artist, the workshop walked the teachers through the process.

It was sponsored by the Association of Alaska School Boards as part of a way to get more rural Alaska students applying for scholarships. Despite the program's focus on the Gates scholarship, the broad nature of the essays makes them applicable for a number of college scholarships and applications, Bartimus said.

Three workshops cost the association $100,000, including costs to bring teachers in from rural Alaska, according to Bob Whicker, director of the Consortium for Digital Learning, a division of the school board association. But it was an investment the organization felt was worth making.

"They call it the million-dollar scholarship because it could be that," Whicker said.

He's optimistic that despite the high cost, the program will continue and "grow exponentially" as teachers around the state continue to work with students on the scholarship program. The goal is to have 100 teachers and counselors from across Alaska trained in the program.

Pride in Chevak

In Chevak, the girls' achievement has been a celebration.

"It's unheard of that we have not one, but two," Atchak said. "I thought I was dreaming."

Campbell said there are limitations to educating students in Chevak. With a small school, resources and challenging classes can be hard to come by. Higher level classes -- like Advanced Placement courses that can earn students college credit while still in high school -- are not available for smaller schools.

Campbell said while the staff at the school is "excellent," when you only have 20 students in an entire grade, all with different learning abilities, it can be a difficult balance. It's a problem that can be common in rural Alaska, Whicker said.

"It's true that rural students are underestimated in their capabilities," Whicker said. "Really it's a lack of experience a lot of times."

The program hopes to change that by having the additional teachers trained around the state to help students find scholarships to further their education.

Atchak said even the Kashunamiut School District is hoping to encourage more students to seek out higher education by giving out laptops as an incentive for graduating students who meet certain criteria, regardless of whether they win the Gates scholarship or not.

Both Pingayak and Fermoyle are planning to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage in the fall. Both like the university's proximity to home so they can have an easier transition. Fermoyle likes helping people and is hoping to go into medicine. Pingayak, with all her siblings, plans to study education in the hopes of becoming a teacher.

There's still plenty to do to prepare for college in the fall, Pingayak said. But she's ready for it.

"I'm just going to keep working hard," she said. "It will be totally worth it at the end."

Reach Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@alaskadispatch.com.


By SUZANNA CALDWELL
suzanna@alaskadispatch.com