Visiting elders add student support at Kenai Peninsula College

Students Vanessa Joe, Peter Imge, Trish Tuluk and Ida Nash pick berries on a language class field trip at Kenai Peninsula College. The students donated all berries to the Kenaitze Elder Program. Photo by Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart, Kenai Peninsula College

by J. Besl

Dorm life is a staple of the American college experience. Seventy-year-old neighbors living in the residence hall, not so much.

But that’s the case at Kenai Peninsula College (KPC), where, a few times each month, students at the Kenai River Campus in Soldotna have elders staying in the residence hall to greet them after class.

“We’d meet in the lounge area or her room, I would just go over and visit,” Trish Tuluk, a second-year paramedic student from Chevak, said of the dorm elders. Like many at KPC, Tuluk was the only student from her village when she arrived on campus. That can be an isolating experience for rural students. “Having someone there for you … is just really helpful,” she said. “Having [elders] there made it feel more like home, and made me miss home less.”

At KPC, Native student retention is a priority, and visiting elders help the college support its rural students, especially the 11 percent of the student body who identify as American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN).

The program, started in 2015, addresses several stark trends in higher education. According to researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, AI/AN students who went straight from high school to a public college had “the highest dropout rate compared to any other student population, despite being academically capable.” Nationwide, AI/AN students made up less than 1 percent of enrolled college students in 2015, per the U.S. Department of Education.

“Our goal is to be a transition campus,” explained Gary J. Turner, director of the college. He sees KPC, with its close faculty-student connections and small-town environment, as a familiar place for rural students to earn a two-year degree, and a possible stepping stone to future degrees in Alaska’s larger cities.

Convincing students to stay, though, means making them feel comfortable. Under Turner’s oversight, the college achieved a long-held dream by opening its first residence hall—a 92-bed apartment-style building—in 2012. That same year, the college hired its first Native and rural student services coordinator, Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart, to plan culturally connected student programming, like kuspuk-sewing, language classes, even registering KPC teams for Kenai’s city basketball league.

Inviting elders to visit campus merges these two focus areas — residence life and Native student support — in a unique retention-boosting effort.

“When you have a number of Native or rural students, you have to provide support,” Turner said. “It’s never going to be exactly like home. But having Native elders provides connections. That’s really important to our students.”

Elders in education

In addition to her student support role, Shaginoff-Stuart also teaches Dena’ina and Ahtna language at KPC, which is where the visiting elder idea first took root.

In her class, Shaginoff-Stuart emphasizes learning by doing. She’ll often drive students to Kalifornsky Beach to cut fish with the Kenaitze tribe or visit a berry patch to harvest, all while speaking in words and phrases that have described these activities for generations. That place-based teaching spurred her to involve elders, who could both share their Native language and assist in traditional activities.

Initially, she hosted elders in her home or paid for their local motel room. A supervisor suggested the residence hall as a solution, and KPC’s residence life director Tammie Willis liked the idea. Together they drew up guidelines, then identified and decorated a central apartment near the building’s multipurpose room and fireplace lounge. Elders are not permanent residents of the apartment, but may stay a few nights each month.

For elders, the program provides a unique chance to experience college, too. Helen Dick, a Dena’ina instructor from Lime Village, never went to school as a girl, instead staying home to learn from her grandparents. Today, she sees education as her role in the community.

“Now that I’m getting older, I like to teach the students because that’s what the old folks wanted us to do,” she said. “They’re not here for us anymore, so somebody has to.”

Dick, one of the first visiting elders, frequently opened the apartment for cooking classes, filling the residence hall with scents of moose and fish and frybread. Another elder, Ahtna instructor Jeannie Maxim from Gulkana, hosted lessons on beadwork and glove-making, while Max Chickalusion of Tyonek led talking circles.

Activities aside, elders have proved especially valuable as simply a connection to home. Students often end the day curled up on couches, talking to their elders in the fireplace lounge.

That listening ear is perhaps the program’s most important feature. “They really feel safe with her,” Shaginoff-Stuart said of Dick. She noted that whether students are stressed about homework or processing a family tragedy at home, they don’t talk to college administrators like they talk to the visiting elders.

“If they really feel they trust you, they can come talk,” Dick said of her role. “It’s not good to keep [problems] in your heart, because it ruins you. It’s better to talk and bring it out.”

“Like family”

It’s too early to know the elders’ effect on student retention, but the program has undoubtedly had a positive effect on campus. Turner noted the elders have helped staff and faculty appreciate challenges in their students’ lives, and Shaginoff-Stuart credited Dick’s calm presence for teaching staff the value of perseverance and the big picture.

But students have received the program’s biggest benefits. “[Those] who aren’t doing the best of the best, they’re just hanging on, Helen really helped those students,” said Shaginoff-Stuart, calling Dick’s work “invaluable.”

Dick now teaches for a local tribe’s Head Start program, but still asks Shaginoff-Stuart about her former neighbors in the residence hall. Importantly, students ask for updates in return.

“She just treated them like family,” Shaginoff-Stuart said. “It really changed the atmosphere over there for some of the students to have that connection.”

Elders interested in participating in KPC’s program can contact Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart at 907-262-0213 or slshaginoffstuart@alaska.edu.

J. Besl highlights alumni stories and campus events at UAA.