by Heidi Toth
Mountain Village, Alaska, is poor—one of the poorest towns in the country, in fact. The town of about 800 people sits in the banks of the Yukon River, far from the gold, oil and salmon that have enriched other parts of the Last Frontier.
Kory Joe grew up in Mountain Village, his childhood lost to a life with relatives who struggled with alcoholism, coping with friends and family members killing themselves while battling depression himself, including a suicide attempt, all in such abject poverty. He didn’t travel or have any grand adventures.
To an outsider, his future may have looked hopeless, but Joe had a reason to keep working, which powered him through high school, where he was valedictorian, and his bachelor’s degree at two different universities. On Dec. 14, he graduates from Northern Arizona University with a degree in mechanical engineering,
“At a young age, I promised my mother that I would make a difference for the better,” he said. “I didn’t know how I’d do it at the time, but I knew I had to start with an education.”
Joe went for it. He enrolled at Mount Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school in Sitka, 1,000 miles away from his village. There he took physics and robotics classes and discovered his love for engineering. He studied for two years at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where he earned an internship with Boeing through the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). That internship provided another opportunity he’d longed for all his life—traveling. He earned enough money to be able to afford to transfer schools, and after applying to a number of different universities throughout the lower 48, he settled on NAU.
“I love that NAU is in the middle of the huge Coconino National Forest, I love that Flagstaff gets snow—it kinda reminds me of home—and I love that NAU has a wonderful Native American Student Services program, where I have met many wonderful, like-minded people,” he said. “I certainly did find myself going on a memorable adventure choosing NAU.”
Joe landed in Flagstaff with a goal. He came from a poor community, but he doesn’t intend for Mountain Village to stay that way. He wants to return to his hometown with the skills and knowledge to help all of southwest Alaska move away from old, expensive diesel generating stations to provide power, which negatively affect the environment and aren’t contributing to the economy. Renewable energy systems are the answer, he believes, and his education at NAU provided him with the skills and abilities to be part of moving the Yup’ik people forward.
Kathleen Frank, the assistant director at the Native American Cultural Center, said Joe has worked hard during his time at NAU, particularly in acting as a mentor to other students through AISES, including at a national level. She believes he did so well in large part because of his resilience.
“All students have their challenges, whatever they may be; with Kory, it was him being far from home, and there were family challenges and financial challenges,” she said. “In this time while he’s been here, there were times when we almost lost him to go back home to be with his family.”
The biggest challenge, she said, was the day in 2016 when Joe’s mother died. He took some time away, then came back determined to keep his promise to his mother.
After graduation, Joe is moving back to Alaska to find work in renewable energy while studying for the Fundamentals of Engineering exam and getting his Professional Engineer license. From there, he wants to work in individual small-scale renewable energy development projects and earn a master’s in business administration and a doctorate in renewable energy.
“Where I’m from, and for most of rural Alaska, there is not much educational or economic opportunity,” he said. “I want to build an economy that provides for my people along with a culture that promotes education, but to do that I know I have to take life a step at a time. Ultimately, my dream is to improve the lives of my people through renewable energies, economic development and education promotion.”
Heidi Toth is the Assistant director for Communications at the Northern Arizona University.