Twenty-four-year-old Samantha Mack never expected to be named the first Rhodes Scholar from the University of Alaska.
“Yeah… I cried. I definitely cried, I was so surprised,” Mack laughed. “I still don’t think it has fully set in, you know. I think every couple days, it sorta sinks in a little deeper and I have an ‘Oh my God!’ moment.”
The Rhodes Scholarship is one of the oldest and most prestigious academic awards in the country. The grant funds two to three years of study at Oxford University in the U.K. Among the application requirements for the award, Mack had to write an essay to the Rhodes scholarship foundation. She decided to write about commercial fishing with her father in her hometown of King Cove. She also wrote about how through her college experience, she was able to learn about and connect with her Aleut heritage.
Mack says her ties to the King Cove region in the Aleutian Chain are deep.
“My dad’s family is the biggest family in King Cove and my mom’s family is the second biggest family in King Cove, so I’ve got quite the extended family mish-mash going on, which is absolutely wonderful,” Mack said.
Mack’s father works as a commercial fisherman out of King Cove. When Mack was young, her mother moved to Anchorage so she would have better educational opportunities. Mack describes herself as a voracious reader — some of her favorite authors include J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.
Mack says while she wasn’t a bad student in primary school — her grades weren’t of the caliber that out-of-state universities salivated over, and getting financial aid to those colleges was difficult. That was a main reason she attended UAA — where she thrived as a student. She says a big factor was the level of care her professors took with her in her academic development.
“You know, encouraging me to apply for internships, for fellowships, for summer programs and different things like that,” Mack said. “Honestly without that kind of prodding, I don’t think I would’ve… I wouldn’t be here.”
In college, Mack worked on projects researching early Alaska fish policy, attended the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Issues, and served as an intern for Senator Dan Sullivan in Washington D.C.
Mack says learning about her culture as an Alaska Native woman was at the core of her college experience. She notes that while she’s not 100 percent sure, there’s a good chance that she’s the first Alaska Native Rhodes Scholar.
“I think I might be,” Mack said. “If so, that’s amazing. I know I’m the first person from my Native Corporation to receive the scholarship, so either way it’s a beyond-incredibly prideful moment for me. I just feel so proud to be representing my people that way.”
Mack says that she wants to become a university professor to bring the same representation to other Native students.
“To be able to be a Native person, and represent that as an instructor, I think is really important for other Native students coming in from wherever they might be from in the state,” Mack said. “And com[ing] to Anchorage where it’s a very big divorce in lifestyle, it’s not really similar for most people. But to get to see something of themselves in somebody that they’re learning from is really important, I think, and something I didn’t really experience until recently.”
Before heading to the U.K. for her scholarship, Mack is finishing up her master’s program in English at UAA. She says she wants to get a Ph.D in Political Science while at Oxford and possibly a doctorate in English down the road.