Presented by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

When Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson’s daughter was in elementary school, her teacher expressed concern that she had comprehension issues. As Davidson dug for answers, the teacher finally admitted that his concern arose because she was “quiet.”

“And I said, ‘Yes -- we’re Yup’ik,’” Davidson said.

Her daughter’s quiet, contemplative demeanor was being interpreted as a lack of comprehension by a teacher who wasn’t experienced teaching Alaska Native students.

“Cultural norms would have made all the difference in his observation of her,” she said.

Because of that experience and too many others like it, Davidson envisions an Alaska in which professionals in fields like education and health care are trained to recognize and complement Alaska Native cultural norms -- and now she’s in a unique position to help bring that vision to life.

As the new president of Alaska Pacific University, Davidson is at the helm of an institution that aims to train Alaska’s future professional workforce in programs that are woven throughout with an understanding of, and respect for, Alaska Native cultures and traditions.

From education to health care and back again

Alaska Pacific University President Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson is the school’s first woman president.

Alaskans will recognize Davidson’s name; previously commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services under Gov. Bill Walker, she was appointed lieutenant governor in 2018. Despite her long career in the health care field, Davidson actually started in schools, earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a specialization in early childhood and a minor in bilingual education. She taught Head Start, first grade, and then middle school.

“Education is the key to addressing so many of the issues that we face today,” Davidson said. “I’ve been fascinated by education ever since I was a four-year-old Head Start student, and my career has continued to lead me back here to my passion for education.”

Still, her experience in health care, including eight years with APU’s partner, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, is part of what attracted Davidson to the APU job.

“So many lessons that we have learned about health care in Alaska translate well into other fields, like education,” Davidson said. “When we can provide care as close to home as possible and in the language and cultural context of the people (to whom) we’re providing that service, we have much better health outcomes. The same is true of education.”

APU is now recognized as an Alaska Native-Serving and Tribally controlled institution, part of its journey toward becoming what is known as a Tribal University. As an Alaska Native person who experienced cultural dissonance in her own education, Davidson said that was a draw for her.

“One of the things that certainly was true when I went to college -- and we hear this a lot from people -- I had to learn how to think like other people in order to be successful at college,” Davidson said. “If we’re doing that, then we’re doing it wrong. Students should be able to bring their whole selves.”

Being a professional shouldn’t mean having to stop being Alaska Native, she said -- and training professionals to be able to serve Alaska Native people well should mean providing more than a single class in cross-cultural communication.

“Everyone’s experience improves when we incorporate traditional knowledge, experience, observation, and science into our learning,” Davidson said.

“Honoring Alaska’s Indigenous heritage” is at the top of APU’s vision statement, and culturally responsive education is central to its mission. The campus culture includes recognition of the Dena’ina people who are the original inhabitants of the Anchorage area and a duty to be good stewards of their traditional lands.

“You don’t have to be an Alaska Native person to come to APU, but we do expect you to uphold this significant pledge, to continue to honor the foundation of learning that Alaska’s Indigenous people have provided since time immemorial,” Davidson said.

Educating a culturally competent workforce

Founded in 1959 as Alaska Methodist University, APU was originally established to educate and train Indigenous leaders. In recent years, through a strategic partnership with ANTHC, the university has been expanding its offerings with an eye toward educating Alaskans to fill needed jobs that support good health in the state.

“Alaska Native and American Indian people want what every other family wants. We want our children and families to be healthy, happy, safe and well-educated. We must do things differently to achieve that outcome” Davidson said. “One of the best ways that you can improve a family’s health status is to increase their economic opportunity. Educating local people for jobs that we know exist in rural Alaska will make a huge difference for our state.”

Davidson points to the rural health aide programs in medicine, oral health, and behavioral health as a potential model for other disciplines to ensure that the services being provided in rural communities reflect the priorities and values of the people in the community.

“We have the opportunity to do that for every job,” she said. “What are we doing to make sure that we are providing good opportunities for people who might be interested in working in accounting, finance or education?”

Davidson points out that health care has been a “bright spot” in Alaska’s economy when other fields have seen declines, and not just for patient-facing careers. APU offers a Master of Business Administration with concentrations in health services administration and finance. APU also offers programs that focus on nursing, counseling psychology, outdoor studies, marine and environmental science, Alaska Native Governance, and sustainability.

“We’ve come full circle, where our focus is on ensuring that we train well-rounded individuals to be able to meet the unique needs of our state, especially in rural communities,” Davidson said. “APU is uniquely positioned to address many of the challenges that Alaska faces.”

A first-generation college student who found the application process was still just as challenging when it came time to help the oldest of her four children apply, Davidson said she appreciates that many APU programs don’t require standardized test scores, and for most programs, applications are accepted right up until the first day of class. Scholarships are available for new and transfer students, and while some are on a full-time, four-year track, others study part-time if that’s what works best for them.

Davidson also appreciates the personal attention that APU students receive. If you miss too many classes, you can expect a check-in phone call.

“You have to work really hard to get lost in our institution,” she said. “We are known for meeting people where they are, and we’ll do whatever it takes to help you get through it.”

‘Business as usual is a thing of the past’

Davidson begins her tenure at APU at a strange time. The campus has been closed to the public since before she accepted the position, and her own onboarding has been done remotely.

Alaska Wildlife Photography

“It has been challenging and interesting at times,” Davidson said. “It also has been really helpful and illuminative to see what our students are experiencing and what the rest of our faculty and staff are experiencing.”

One of her first big tasks has been overseeing the planning process for this fall, and for that she said she’s been grateful for her background in public health, which gave her a good understanding of pandemics and disease transmission. Over the course of the summer, three different APU committees worked on developing a campus reopening plan, which was released on July 1. The plan called for reopening for in-person instruction, supported by extensive new health and safety protocols.

“We were clear that our plan would change if COVID transmission numbers changed, so when those numbers started to climb in Alaska, we released a revised plan that looked quite different at the end of July ,” Davidson said.

“We’re doing mostly all online classes except for a few classes that require some in-person instruction,” Davidson said. “We’re also allowing limited residential programs so that students can live on campus.”

That second point is important, she said, because there are some students who don’t have the things they need at home -- a safe learning environment, housing and meals, and reliable internet access. As a college student of limited means who relied on a freezer full of subsistence food to get her through the school year, Davidson said she’s particularly aware of how important that campus housing is to the students who need it.

Despite the uncertain times, Davidson seems unfazed by the complex circumstances under which she has taken office.

“I’ve never been a university president before, so I don’t really have another point of reference,” she said, laughing. “This is all that I know. In some ways, that’s really helpful … I think business as usual is a thing of the past. We’re going to be constantly adapting to whatever our new normal is.”

As Alaska figures out what that “new normal” looks like, Davidson’s goal is for APU to be a driving force in shaping the state’s future.

“My vision is that APU is the university of choice for Alaskans -- for students, faculty and staff alike,” Davidson said. “As Alaskans look to address our challenges, we want them to turn to APU.”

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.