Expanding horizons: Kusilvak Career Academy students tour Air National Guard facilities

by Seth LaCount

Diane George, a high school student with the the Kusilvak Career Academy, sits in the cockpit of a HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, April 4, 2024. The tour was an effort between the AKNG and the academy to present opportunities for high school students to explore the day-to-day aspects of military life and learn how a military career could benefit them. (Alaska National Guard photo by Seth LaCount)
Cody Walker, Faith Tucker and Jared Queenie sit aboard an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter during a tour given by the Alaska Air National Guard on Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, April 4 ,2024. The students were able to ask questions about the aircraft and what a career in the military would look like for them. (Alaska National Guard photo by Seth LaCount)

Approximately 26 students from the Kusilvak Career Academy toured Alaska Air National Guard facilities on Thursday, April 5, 2024. The tour was an effort between the AKANG and the academy to present opportunities for high school students to explore the day-to-day aspects of military life and learn how a military career could benefit them.

The students got hands-on experience with three different Air National Guard aircraft: The C-17 Globemaster III, HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, and the HC-130J Combat King II.

Alaska Air National Guard aviation, maintenance and search and rescue personnel from the 176th Wing guided the students through each aircraft and answered questions ranging from their deployment experience to the price of each aircraft.

“It’s exciting to be able to share our experiences with young people and let them know how profound an impact military service has been for us,” said Maj. Stephanie Wilson, a pilot with the ANG’s 210th Rescue Squadron who guided the tour of the Pave Hawk. “Our rescue efforts put us out in our communities often, and it’s important for these young people to see how they can practically make a difference if they choose to serve.”

The academy has toured National Guard facilities two times a year since its inception in 2019, and the staff typically brings 25 to 45 students per trip to introduce the military as a career option.

“Base is always one of the student’s favorite places to tour,” said Samantha Carlon, an academy staff member and tour chaperone. “It’s a lot more engaging for them to be able to come and see the military lifestyle up close than to get a verbal brief by a recruiter. Every time we attend, they ask us when we’re coming back.”

Representing the Lower Yukon School District north of Bethel, the academy is one of many Alaska boarding schools but stands alone as the only one to allow students to attend one academic quarter at a time.

Alaska natives hail from a rich history of being caretakers of their land and fostering a culture of subsistence living in many rural areas of Alaska. The one quarter requirement allows students to choose the optimal season to attend the academy without interfering with their responsibilities at home. The National’s Guard’s part-time service requirements also complement this type of lifestyle.

“This has really shown me what’s out there and what’s possible,” said Jacob Okitkun, a high school senior and native of the village of Kotlik. “It’s an awesome way to network and make lots of connections with kids from my area.”

Okitkun said he looks forward to joining the Air Guard after high school to pursue his dream of becoming an electrician and plumber and to have the opportunity to travel to new and exciting places.

Several of the chaperones expressed the importance of giving the students structure and an environment of accountability for them to thrive as young people.

“Garnering a sense of community is very important for a lot of these young people,” Carlon said. “It’s important for them to have a sense of identity in the team that they’re part of, and the students we’ve seen join the service later in life are very proud of their respective branch.”