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Fresh group graduates from rural Alaska college program that teaches as it heals

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published May 2, 2016

BETHEL -- Some of the students graduating Monday from a little-known but potent college program designed for rural students say they didn't know what they were in for when they signed up two years earlier.

As it turned out, in classes about personal growth and grief, addiction and mental health, they studied more than the techniques and theories designed to help villages grow their own counselors and helpers. They also looked deep into themselves.

"We are addressing the toughest social problems this state faces, and we are diving in," said Diane McEachern, an assistant professor on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in Bethel. "We are looking at it from the inside out."

The Rural Human Services program began in 1992 as a direct response to the devastation of alcohol and suicide revealed in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News series "A People in Peril." The Alaska Federation of Natives wanted a pathway for village residents to get college training in mental health, said McEachern, who studied the program for her doctorate and who oversees both RHS and the companion associate degree in Bethel.

Twenty-four RHS students graduated Monday from the Kuskokwim campus in Bethel and another 21 finished up an Interior RHS program that splits coursework between Anchorage and Fairbanks. All told, more than 580 Alaskans now have graduated from the two-year Rural Human Services certificate course over the past 22 years.

"This is basically growing your own," said Rahnia Boyer, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. vice president over village health services.

Some plan to go on to get a specially designed associate's degree in human services and then a bachelor's. The program is backed by a $1.8 million annual state grant that covers much of the costs.

Many of the students are Alaska Native – on the Kuskokwim campus, it's usually 100 percent Native – and the curriculum weaves together Alaska Native and Western teachings, McEachern said. Elders take part in every class, by design. Their presence soothes both non-Native professors and Native students, some of whom have little experience outside their home village.

In the old days of Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, students had to leave their Native identity at the door.

"We've kind of flipped the script," McEachern said. "Now in order to succeed they have to bring their whole self in."

Joy of learning

About three-fourths of the RHS students stick with the program and eventually graduate. More typically, Alaska Native students drop out in big numbers, according to statistics from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Emma Smith of Hooper Bay is among this year's standouts, McEachern said. She's 52. Most of the RHS students are in their 30s, 40s or 50s. Many haven't been in a classroom for years.

Two years ago, Smith enrolled at UAF to study psychology. Just before it was time to move to Fairbanks, she wanted to back out. Moving from a small coastal village to a strange Interior city with three young children seemed overwhelming. She was just two years sober and a single parent. Her adviser suggested RHS in Bethel instead. It was just right.

"Two years went by so fast!" Smith said Monday morning at the graduation breakfast. "I'm having so much fun, the time of my life. I just need Patrick Swayze to dance with."

Students come from Bethel but also villages throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Akiak and Emmonak, Kotlik and Kwigillingok. They live in their home villages during school and return there to do their work.

"This is what we need in the region, more people who are educated and experienced and grounded to be able to support tribal leaders and the families who are in crisis," said Ray Daw, a Navajo tribal member who serves as administrator of behavioral health for Yukon-Kuskokwm Health Corp., the region's tribally run health agency.

YKHC is one of a number of organizations that send workers through the program to gain insights, skills and college education. The rural program serves as a pipeline to more education, and even to management positions, he said.

The Kuskokwim campus students gather in Bethel one week a month for intensive study. In between classroom weeks they have homework, such as interviewing someone in their home village about mental illness, then analyzing what they were told. They realize what supports are lacking.

"If they were ever in a position of power, they would design things," McEachern said.

They become tight after two years of classwork and what Smith called a shared "healing journey."

'Didn't know good side'

Before helpers can do their work, first they must mend themselves, says Esther Green, one of the elders in the Kuskokwim campus program. She grew up in the tundra village of Nunapitchuk when it was all about subsistence, what she calls "the golden way of life." But when she was a young mother, her own home was dysfunctional.

She's long sober, a retired bilingual teacher and Sunday school teacher. But in the classroom she tells of her own long-ago drinking and a violent marriage. She took her six children and left her husband.

The chaos of that old life has become her treasure, a wealth of stories to share in class, Green says. She talks about how to fight the negative forces with the good.

"Munarcaaryaraq," she says, giving the Yup'ik word. "The way of doing the best in the world you know how to do, or say. It's part of deep thinking when you concentrate on something. It's like you're meditating. And you're doing it, using that word."

She remembers how bad she felt about herself when she was drinking, and how that fed more bad behavior. Then an uncle, a lay pastor, told her he was so proud of her, of the good care she took of her children. He didn't talk about her sickness, her drinking.

"That stirred me up," Green said. "I didn't know I had good side."

She realized it wasn't too late to change, and it's not too late for others, she said.

That's how the Rural Human Services program works, with students examining their internal struggles and suffering, from childhood abuse to the loss of cherished grandparents, from their own drinking to violence in their homes. Some are quiet and shy but eventually everyone tells parts of their own, sometimes dark stories. Through that, they learn that others have had the same troubles, and find ways to apply those experiences.

Graduate Leann Jackson, 24, of Akiak said when she started RHS, she had a negative view of life. She said she was grieving her grandmother and "all the other deaths." Now, Jackson, who works as a pull-tab operator in the village, said she is looking ahead with bright eyes to more training and a new career, maybe as a certified medical assistant.

Full of knowledge

Many already have jobs, as Indian Child Welfare Act workers and wellness coordinators, behavioral health aides and tribal administrators, tribal judges and tribal welfare workers. RHS provides structure and tools for that work.

Smith works as a wellness coordinator in Hooper Bay, which suffered from a rash of suicides in the fall. For her practicum, a big project for which each student must devote 125 hours, she is introducing Hooper Bay to a new approach toward healthy communities being pioneered by McEachern and a University of Massachusetts professor. The idea is to present communities with key facts about social issues such as suicide, and let them figure out a strategy. So far, Smith has held two meetings and is getting ready for the third, as soon as village residents finish spring seal hunts and harvest of wild greens.

Other RHS students are working to develop village youth groups or women's groups. One wants to study changes in how Yup'ik men perceive themselves. Another wants to start a meditation program for young children. A Bethel graduate is working on a drop-off center for new parents to get a break from their babies. The McCann Treatment Center in Bethel began years ago through an effort of RHS students to address inhalant abuse.

The last classwork session was in mid-April. On the floor in the middle of the room, McEachern piled all the flip chart pages she had saved over the two years, pages full of the students' feelings and thoughts and ideas for helping others.

"You know, 90 percent of what is written came out of all of you," McEachern tells them. "That should tell you everything you need to know is already in you."

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