For many Native American students, college seems as far off as the moon. But as Buzz Aldrin said in an appearance at the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program, “Once you set your mind to get something done, seemingly anything is possible.”
ANSEP has been boosting students to university and beyond since 1995, with a plan that begins in middle school and extends into career placement after graduation. This series of intensive academic supports centered at the University of Alaska Anchorage inspires students to explore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
As of 2016, roughly 2,000 students have taken part in the program, which has over 100 partners in the form of philanthropic organizations, corporations, educational institutions, and government agencies. It helps Natives prepare for careers within the oil and gas industry, biology, conservation, and other technical fields. The Urban Institute has categorized ANSEP as one of the most successful STEM programs in the country, propelling 85 percent of graduates to STEM careers.
Alaska’s economy relies heavily on technical knowledge. Yet only 6 percent of Alaska Natives work in a technical field, though they make up 15 percent of the state’s population. In this rugged state, turnover of school teachers is high, and high-level science and math education is difficult to come by.
In 1993, engineering professor Herb Schroeder noticed the absence of Natives in his field and worried about the lack of educational opportunity it signaled. Two years later, with funding from Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, he launched ANSEP as a scholarship program at the University of Alaska. By 1998, he had 12 students. The program expanded with donations from the Rasmuson, Alfred Sloan, and Oak foundations, the National Science Foundation, and corporations like BP, Conoco Phillips, ExxonMobil, Udelhoven, and Alaska Airlines.
Rasmuson has been a key supporter, providing more than $7 million over the years for facilities, an endowed chair, and more. Diane Kaplan, president of the foundation, says, “Our mission is to enhance the quality of life for everybody in Alaska. ANSEP plays a crucial role in that, by providing skilled professionals who support our state’s economy.”
Success starts with the Middle School Academy. For two weeks, students get hands-on experience building their own computers and dissecting salmon, among other activities. They also practice soft skills that pay off across their education. “I learned to get on my own case and do my homework and study for tests,” says Tvetene Carlson, now 19, whose mom encouraged his interest in the program when he was 13. “She always told me that education is the most important thing,” he says. “It’s how you elevate yourself, and become an adult.”
The academy now also runs during the school year in 12 Alaska school districts. A summer program for eighth-to-eleventh graders offers college-credit classes taught by University of Alaska faculty. Fully 95 percent of students each summer advance at least one level in math or science.
ANSEP’s latest offering is a partnership with a high school in Palmer, Alaska, where university faculty teach 30 ANSEP students who plan to graduate a year early with a year or more of college credits.
A summer program for high-school seniors propels 95 percent of them through a college math course and a paid engineering or science internship. When they complete that, they receive a $5,000 scholarship toward any STEM degree.
Once they reach college, peer and professional mentoring, research projects, summer internships, study groups, and social activities help kids stay enrolled. At weekly ANSEP meetings, STEM professionals talk about their work, and students network and share their own experiences.
“Expecting the education system to fix itself isn’t going to happen, because of massive bureaucracy,” says Schroeder. “So you can pull drowning children from the river. Or you can do what ANSEP is doing—prevent them from being thrown in to begin with.”