MAKing It: The CIRI Foundation – a ‘testament to the power of education’

SPONSORED: One recipient of the foundation’s scholarship program shares her story of self-determination.

Presented by First National Bank Alaska

Anchorage resident Laura Cantrell jumped into a new career in the medical field right as the COVID-19 pandemic began. After working overtime on the front lines while attending nursing school, she found herself at a crossroads.

Cantrell, an Athabascan woman and single mother of two young children, knew it was time to make a bold move and shift careers. She had already overcome incredible odds in her life, including experiencing homelessness off and on from ages 18 through 24.

With a love of learning and passion for business, she decided to pursue an associate degree at Alaska Career College. To make her ambitions a reality, Cantrell built up her savings and also applied for financial aid, including a scholarship through The CIRI Foundation. This crucial support allowed her to study full time, focus on her education, and stay home.

“When I want something, I go for it,” said Cantrell.

Going to school without needing to work a full-time job or two throughout “was really beneficial for my children, because they got to spend time with me,” Cantrell said. She also used her prior education in childhood development to teach her children essential skills. And they could observe her studying and working on her degree. “They were able to see me in class every day. It’s good for them to see that.”

In June, Cantrell graduated with an associate degree in accounting and business administration, with a 3.6 GPA.

Cantrell’s story exemplifies The CIRI Foundation’s primary mission to promote individual self-development and economic self-sufficiency. The foundation provides education funding for original shareholders of the Cook Inlet Region, Inc. and their direct descendants.

“It really excites me to have a good career and to keep learning to better myself, and to be a good role model for my kids,” said Cantrell. “I want them to be as resilient and independent and ambitious as I am.”

‘After that, I can handle anything’

Today, Cantrell’s son is 11 and her daughter is 4 years old. She works as an accounting intern at Cook Inlet Tribal Council and enjoys learning about self-improvement.

She’s thriving. But life wasn’t always this way. At 14, she found herself living on her own, struggling with substance misuse, and spending time with a crowd that encouraged unsafe behavior. Then at 18, she became pregnant. It was a pivotal moment.

“I quit all that when I found out I was pregnant,” said Cantrell, now 30.

She found temporary housing through a program for pregnant teens. She took life skill classes and finished her GED when her son was six months old.

Cantrell went on to teach early childhood development before enrolling in a medical assistant program. She graduated at the top of her class and promptly enrolled in nursing school. Working on the front lines during the pandemic was incredibly challenging, she said.

“After that, I can handle anything!” Cantrell told The CIRI Foundation. What she wanted next was a new career. She was able to get the education she needed to start anew with a scholarship from the foundation.

The CIRI Foundation’s scholarship programs serve as a stepping stone, said President and CEO Connie Wirz.

“However, the true measure of success lies in each student’s efforts to take ownership of their futures, through responsibility, dedication and sacrifice as they actively work toward improving their lives through education and hard work,” Wirz said.

In the past 41 years, The CIRI Foundation has provided $42 million to scholarship recipients. The foundation was founded by the Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (CIRI) Board of Directors. CIRI is an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporation.

Since Wirz stepped into her new role as President and CEO in April she and her team have been streamlining systems to make the organization’s scholarship programs even more accessible.

“The goal is to modernize our systems providing responsive student support and outreach while reducing administrative costs, prioritizing scholarships over administrative expenses, and sustaining and growing the endowment,” said Wirz.

The foundation’s scholarships are for degree-seeking students. Vocational training grants support enrollment in accredited or recognized technical skill training programs, from certificates to advanced degrees.

The impact for recipients is “truly remarkable,” Wirz said, with graduates forging careers in a wide variety of fields across Alaska and nationwide. Some go on to work within the CIRI family of organizations as doctors, dentists, nurses, or educators.

“Together, we are a testament to the power of education, hard work, and the enduring commitment to excellence,” said Wirz.

Alliance in shared values

“It is an amazing nonprofit. They do so much for the Alaska Native community,” said Tammy Stewart, First National Bank Alaska Treasury Management Consultant and Senior Business Development Officer. Stewart works with The CIRI Foundation to find the best options to manage their First National accounts.

Applying her 25 years of experience, Stewart assists organizations of all sizes. Her team provides crucial banking services to assist businesses in managing cash flow, preventing fraud, and leveraging enterprise solutions.

These Treasury Management solutions “help make business day-to-day a little bit easier,” said Stewart. “We’re much like a trusted advisor, not only streamlining, but helping them to protect their accounts against fraud.”

At First National, Alaska organizations and businesses benefit from working with local branch managers, personal bankers, treasury management professionals, and others.

“Clients have a handful of experts they are able to consult with and who can be there to help them grow,” said Stewart. “First National is here to help Alaska thrive.”

The bank’s range of services is helpful for The CIRI Foundation.

“Our collaboration with First National allows us to tap into customized financial services that cater to our diverse needs, enabling more resource allocation to our core mission. Their steadfast dedication and deep understanding of our needs have established them as crucial financial allies in our endeavors,” said Wirz.

“Our alliance with First National was well-considered, rooted in shared values and a common focus on serving Alaska communities,” she said. “First National consistently nails the basics of commitment to customer service, adaptability and relationships.”

‘I hope I can inspire others’

With First National helping to keep The CIRI Foundation’s finances secure, the organization can focus on its mission.

As Cantrell continues to pursue her ambitions, she encourages others to chase their dreams and tap into available support.

“I hope that I can inspire other people, because I came from rock bottom,” said Cantrell. “It’s been a long 12 years, and I’m really happy where I’m at today. My life is good.”

She’s hoping to join the accounting team at her current job full time while going back to school.

“I plan on going for a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Alaska Pacific University starting in January,” she said. “I’m already enrolled. I’ll definitely be applying for scholarships again.”

Header Image: The CIRI Foundation team includes, from left to right, Vice President Kyla Morris, Communications Manager Rachael Fisher, President/CEO Connie Wirz, Administrative Manager Ginger Miles, and, in back row, Program Assistant Tim Lucason and Program Assistant Sara Martinchick. Image courtesy First National Bank Alaska

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to help Alaskans shape a brighter tomorrow by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

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This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.