Ilisagvik College in Barrow is unique in Alaska – it's the only tribal college in the state. And this year marks its 20th anniversary of providing vocational and academic education to a diverse student population.

DSC_9145No question that Western-style education has been a double-edged sword for traditional Native cultures in Alaska. Schools introduced by missionaries were a vehicle for assimilation. Most everyone is familiar with Elders’ stories of being punished as children for speaking their Native language in the classroom.

It was for the sake of education that so many Native children in the 1950s and ‘60s – including many of today’s leaders – were shipped off to boarding schools, pulled from their families, their cultures, their communities.

And yet, and yet. Western education has brought benefits to indigenous communities in Alaska. And successes are seen especially in programs and organizations that emphasize the importance of incorporating indigenous culture within a western context. As president of Ilisagvik College in Barrow since 2012, Pearl Kiyawn Brower is excited and energized to be presiding over the 20th anniversary of Alaska’s only tribal college.

“What the college is doing – it’s incredibly life-changing. Our tagline is More education, more options, more out of life. We are helping to create opportunities for healthier living. A more educated population creates changes, healthier communities, less social ills. It changes lives – there’s a ripple effect. It’s so exciting. On the flip side, we still suffer from decreasing budgets and increasing costs of doing business. It’s not getting easier. It’s a struggle we deal with on a daily basis,” Brower said.

Higher education has seen greater acceptance in the region over the years, she said.
“We’ve been able to flip what was once negative into a positive revitalization of language, culture, values and traditions. More and more people are getting involved in the college and taking advantage of the opportunities we offer,” Brower said. “Community support has bloomed and blossomed. In the last 20 years, there’s been a lot of change in perceptions about education.”

Ilisagvik focuses on both the educational needs of rural Alaska residents and the workforce needs of employers. Many of its class offerings are meeting specific requests of employers. Education and training at Ilisagvik prepares Alaskans for work close to their villages and their families, Brower said.

“We know that each student has their own unique needs and goals. If your goal is to get a four-year degree, Ilisagvik can offer you the first two years of that degree in a comfortable and familiar setting geared towards giving you a successful beginning to your college experience. Because Ilisagvik is accredited, your work here can transfer to a four year degree elsewhere,” Brower said.

Ilisagvik offers two-year associate degrees and certificates in vocational, academic and workforce development fields. Every program models Iñupiat traditions, values, and culture, and provides career and employment opportunities in the Arctic as well as elsewhere in Alaska. Students attend the campus in Barrow and by distance delivery.

Like the nation’s other 36 or so tribal colleges, Ilisagvik meets the same academic standards as other accredited colleges and universities. It’s a tribal college by virtue of three attributes: it’s operated and controlled by Alaska Natives; it emphasizes education to Native students; and Inupiaq culture, language, values, and traditions are integrated throughout the curricula.

Over its 20 years, Ilisagvik has awarded 172 associate degrees, 470 certificates, 212 endorsements and 397 GEDs. The college has approximately 700 students every semester, but they’re not all from within the North Slope Borough, nor are they all Alaska Native.

The number of students from outside the region has been growing, Brower said, including students from Alaska’s urban communities and even out of state.

“Every year, we get a few students from out of state. We have a really strong distance program. We have a high quality educational program, and we are an inexpensive option for obtaining higher education. We usually hover between 55% and 60% of Alaska Native/American Indian. We have large Asian and Polynesian populations. We’re such a melting pot in Barrow. We’re very rich in that. In the world of tribal colleges, it makes us unique since most of them have 80% to 90% tribal enrollment. We’re a diverse organization, and we draw strength from that diversity,” she said.

Ilisagvik officially became a tribal college in 2005, which paved the way for additional foundation and federal support. “The tribal college concept is so positive. Tribal colleges are known for being catalysts for change, for creating new opportunities for individuals and communities – that in itself is exciting and gives hope for the future,” she said.

Brower marvels at the opportunities ahead. “Harvard was founded over 400 years ago. The oldest tribal college has been around 60 years. As a tribal college, Ilisagvik is just a teenager. A teenager that has touched the lives of more than 1,000 students. It certainly puts things in perspective,” she said. “It’s so exciting to think of what lies ahead.”