Send this article to Promobot

Ilisagvik College celebrates 20 successful years

March 13th, 2015 | Content provided Print this article   Email this article  

For the Arctic Sounder

It was not all that long ago, two generations at best, when the Inupiat of the North Slope barely dared to dream of a day when their children could go to a local high school. Now, thanks to the wisdom and courage of those who fought to make that unbelievable dream a reality, students on the North Slope can go from pre-school through junior college without leaving home. Not only that, but they can go to a college that treasures their cultural values and encourages the very language their grandparents were forbidden to speak in school.

This year, Ilisagvik College celebrates its 20th Anniversary. In those 20 years, it has achieved all that its founders had hoped for and then some. According to Ilisagvik President Pearl Brower, "One of the most important things about Ilisagvik, I believe, is the amazing amount of success we've had in only a short 20 years.?When we consider that Harvard, who most agree to be the first 'institution of higher education', was founded almost 400 years ago, while tribal colleges have only been around less than 50, and Ilisagvik only 20, the fact that we have matriculated over 1,000 students is incredibly important."?

When asked for a comment on the 20th anniversary of the college, former North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak, who was a central figure in the development of post secondary education on the slope, said, "The college has gone above and beyond my expectations by being a Tribal college which is now accredited by the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities, an accrediting association that was endorsed by the United States Department of Education. I am very proud that the tribal college has provided a learning environment that promotes and strengthens Inupiat culture, language, values and traditions." President Brower pointed out that the continued support of the North Slope Borough and all the people in its villages is a clear recognition of the importance the Iñupiat place on post-secondary education. "I believe that the support is also saying — yes, we are indigenous, we are Native, but we are also trained in Western ways. We can compete on a global level. With more education and training, we will be able to do even more in the future.?It is important that we continue to support traditional learning and knowledge, but also work toward walking in both worlds. Combining the two will make the best life possible for future generations."?

Work on creating a place for post secondary education on the North Slope began almost as soon as the North Slope Borough was born with the creation of Inupiat University of the Arctic. Although that effort eventually faltered, the idea never died. In 1986, according to an overview available on the college's website, "the North Slope Borough created the North Slope Higher Education Center, a cooperative effort between the North Slope Borough and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The North Slope Higher Education Center's Board and the North Slope Borough Assembly changed the institution's name to Arctic Sivunmun Ilisagvik College in 1991 to reflect its transformation into a community college. Arctic Sivunmun Ilisagvik College merged with the Mayor's Workforce Development Program in 1993, adding facilities and resources to support the growing number of vocational education opportunities available at the college."

Alaska State House Representative Ben Nageak was hired to help start the workforce development program. In 1995, when the college and the workforce development program were combined into the newly named Ilisagvik College, Dr. Shirley Holloway, former NSB school district superintendent and one time state education commissioner, was asked to be the president. She asked Representative Nageak to come onboard as Vice President.

When contacted for his thoughts on the college today, he said, "In 20 years, Ilisagvik College has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. It was nationally certified and became the only tribal college in Alaska. We had great women as presidents such as Dr. Shirley Holloway, Dr. Edna Maclean, Beverly Grinage and another Barrow born leader, Pearl Brower Darling. Congratulations to Ilisagvik College and its leaders. Keep it going far into the future."

Holloway added, "Many visionary leaders and community members came together to launch Ilisagvi?College.?It is so wonderful to see how the college has continued to grow in its ability to meet the workforce and academic needs of the people of the North Slope. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to be a small part of the evolution of this terrific college."

And what an evolution it has been. Since it opened its doors, Ilisagvik has amassed some impressive statistics. It has awarded 158 AA degrees, 443 certificates, 129 endorsements and 396 GEDs. Given that the majority of those were conferred on local residents, the impact on the skilled labor available in the workforce is clearly significant. In fact, Ilisagvik has been so successful in its mission that it now accepts students from all over Alaska and even some from the lower 48.

Brower acknowledges that the road has not always been easy and that higher education still faces some formidable obstacles. She points out that local students often struggle to complete a semester when they are called home for subsistence activities or are simply homesick and unable to focus on their classwork.

"However," she adds, "our numbers continue to grow and our reach extends farther each year. We have over 700 students a semester attending Ilisagvik. There is a change in attitude towards higher education among our residents and I know it's because the college is such a positive and life-changing force on the Slope."

Perhaps noted Iñupiaq linguist and former President Edna Maclean said it best when she stated, "It's the best thing that happened for education on the North Slope. It allows our people to remain in their homes and continue their subsistence lifestyle while participating in the new economy, which is so different from that of our ancestors. It also gives students a place to hone their academic skills in a supportive environment should they want to go on to a four-year program or other specialty study." Maclean added, "Their ABE/GED program is critical for some students to get a better start in life if they didn't do well in high school. And that is a wonderful safety net to help them find work and be able to support their families."

It is clear that for many students over the years, Ilisagvik opened the door to their future. It continues to find new and innovative ways to bring post secondary education to even the smallest and most remote of villages through their online classes. As wider broadband width becomes available across the Slope, this effort will continue to grow with it. One way or another, Ilisagvik will push forward towards its goal of giving every North Slope resident a brighter future through education.

If you want to be part of that brighter future, contact the recruitment office at (907) 852-1772, or toll-free at 800-478-7337, ext. 1772, or e-mail


Copyright 2017 The Arctic Sounder is a publication of Alaska Media, LLC. This article is © 2017 and limited reproduction rights for personal use are granted for this printing only. This article, in any form, may not be further reproduced without written permission of the publisher and owner, including duplication for not-for-profit purposes. Portions of this article may belong to other agencies; those sections are reproduced here with permission and Alaska Media, LLC makes no provisions for further distribution.