There’s now another way for North Slope residents to get a college degree without leaving home. Iḷisaġvik College, Alaska’s only tribal college, launched its inaugural bachelor’s of business administration this past fall.
The main campus for Iḷisaġvik College is located in what’s known as the NARL complex in Utqiaġvik; it’s the spot where the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory used to operate until it was shuttered about 40 years ago. A short drive north of town, it’s a collection of scattered Quonset huts and a boxy blue building lofted up on stilts.
The President of the college, Dr. Pearl Brower, says that the vision for higher education on the North Slope began back in the 1970s with the Borough’s first mayor, Eben Hopson Sr.
Hopson felt strongly that local education was the key to self-governance, and he made it one of his top priorities.
“He recognized that that was going to be one of the most important things for the future of the North Slope given the fact that we were playing such a major role in oil and gas development, and the fact that we were on the edge of the Arctic in regards to science and climate change,” Brower said.
Over the years, higher education here has gone through several different iterations. But in the 1990s Iḷisaġvik College was established in its current form, offering vocational certificates, associate degrees, and short-term workforce development training. And now, exactly one bachelor’s degree as well.
At 5:30 p.m. in one of Iḷisaġvik’s classrooms, professor David Rice is teaching a managerial accounting course to a classroom of five students. The main topic is budgets. How you set them, who within an organization should get a say in how they’re set, and the advantages and disadvantages of different budgeting tactics.
Not all of the students in this class are part of the bachelor’s program. But one of them — Roxanna N. Evikana just started the program this semester.
Evikana grew up here on the North Slope. She attended some college in Anchorage and Washington State, but now that she’s back on the Slope, she’s excited that she can work towards her degree without leaving behind the things that are important to her.
“Me and my family try to live a subsistence lifestyle,” Evikana said. “I believe that’s what’s best for my children growing up… and being home, being able to go to college at the same time is just… that is the best.”
Evikana currently works as an accounting manager for Utqiaġvik’s village corporation. She says she joined the bachelor’s program mostly because it was a personal goal of hers. But also because she thinks she may want to open her own business one day.
Evikana says there isn’t a ton of entertainment in town, so she’s leaning toward that. “Bowling, movies, you know, something fun,” Evikana said.
Her professor David Rice says that most of the students in the Bachelor’s program are like Evikana — they’re not taking the course because they don’t have jobs. They’re taking it to open up more opportunities down the road.
“They’re just making sure that they’re getting the training so they can move up to upper management,” Rice said. “That keeps the jobs here in the local population. That keeps the money here in the local population. We don’t have to bring anybody up from the lower 48 or even from Anchorage.”
President Brower echoes this idea. She hopes the bachelor’s program will give local students the qualifications they need to fill positions that might otherwise go to applicants from elsewhere.
“We see this influx of an outside workforce in our state,” Brower said. “We have every ability to… have local control of that. But that takes education. In today’s world — it’s not the world of our ancestors — in today’s world we need that education to go along with our indigenous experiences.”
While the bachelor’s in business administration is Iḷisaġvik’s first, Brower says the college hopes to soon have another. They recently started offering courses in elementary education with an indigenous focus, and they hope to grow it to a bachelor’s program in the coming years.
In December, Iḷisaġvik College announced that starting this semester, the college will waive tuition for all Alaska Native students, including for the bachelor’s in business administration.
Editor’s note: The first line of this story has been changed to reflect that Iḷisaġvik is not the only place to get a bachelor’s degree on the North Slope. There are distance education programs available for enrollment.