Arctic students take top honors at RAHI
It's been nearly two months since soon-to-be Noorvik High School senior Wilfried Zibell packed up his bags and headed to Fairbanks for weeks and weeks of intensive work and study.
In the heart of summer, Zibell spent each day attending college-level courses, poring over notes during evening study halls, writing papers and taking tests as one of the 68 students in this year's Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) cohort.
"Before I went to RAHI I was terrified. I thought there was no way in you-know-what I would be able to do it academically. I was ready for a white-knuckle six weeks," said Zibell. "To an extent, that was true, but I learned that as long as you keep motivated and you have the drive to keep going and keep working, you can do the academics."
His dedication paid off as, at the end of the program, he was named valedictorian for his achievements both academically and socially.
"[The valedictorians] have gone through the program. They're good academically. They're good as a leader — all of those aspects of being a good student," explained RAHI Director Denise Wartes. "They are leaders not only within the classroom, but within the dormitory because it's a 24-hour a day experience. They don't just go 8-to-5, they have mandatory study halls five nights a week, so they are leaders academically, socially, culturally."
The honors institute is divided into two tracks: regular and research. This year, there were 57 regular RAHI students and 11 in RAHI research.
Consequently, there were two valedictorians who gave speeches at class graduation — one from each side of the program.
Kameron Reitan, 17, is entering her senior year at Sidney C. Huntington School in Galena and was chosen as the research valedictorian. Although she grew up outside the North Slope, she has family ties to both Atqasuk and Barrow.
She said she knew she was doing well in the program, but wasn't expecting to be the valedictorian.
"It was surprising but it does mean a lot because it gave me confidence, for sure," Reitan said. "It reassured me that I can push myself and be above average. It boosted my confidence and showed me that I can succeed in college and in the career I choose."
One of the courses that piqued her interest was an anthropology class in which she studied bones, predominantly moose and bird, that had been excavated in Delta. She also enrolled in a lecture course about the history of the first people in Alaska and even took a dance class.
"I would say it was most definitely challenging," she said. "It was fast-paced, but it was nice, though, because we had mandatory study hall which disciplined you to get your work done. It was well worth the time."
Coming out of the program, she said she feels more prepared for the rigor of college-level coursework and time management.
"I'm walking away with a lot of experience, especially with discipline. Now I understand how much independent study there is in college and what it takes to be a dedicated student and getting your work done — the commitment it takes," said Reitan. "You have to build a lot of new social skills and get out of your comfort zone."
That's one of the goals of the program, which fully funds each of the students it accepts, from airfare to tuition to books and supplies, to give them a glimpse into the world of higher education and life after high school.
"We incorporate not only the academics, but help students make the transition from their village or town to college life — to learn how to adapt from being at home all the time to focus on their education to be with other like-minded students who are also interested in education," said Wartes.
Zibell, whose father and sister also attended RAHI when they were younger, said the challenge of adapting to those new circumstances was one of the reasons he wanted to attend.
"RAHI was important to me because in my school, I've never really had the chance to take classes that are very challenging because my school is small and we don't have the opportunities that some of the larger schools do," he said. "I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something challenging in academics and RAHI was a great opportunity for that."
Getting to meet students from around the state and make lifelong friends from different backgrounds was also a draw for Zibell, who also serves as the youth advisor to the state board of education.
Now that the program is finished, both Zibell and Reitan have headed back to their respective homes to finish up their final year of high school.
After graduating, Reitan said she hopes to attend college and maybe pursue a career in nursing or sports medicine. Zibell, on the other hand, has always been interested in politics and government and said he would like to study political science and then attend law school.
"My hope would be that they continue on their educational path [either] in the university [or] in other ways that make them happy and successful," said Wartes. "It could be a trade school, it might be that they become a commercial fisherman, or they become a Native leader within their community. I just hope they use the RAHI stepping stones and skills that we gave them to continue on their path wherever their path may lead them, so it makes them feel successful in their own right."
Despite the challenges, both valedictorians say the program was worth the effort and credit RAHI with helping them push their own limits and tap into more of their potential.
"You have no choice in RAHI but to just throw yourself into the work and do your best to keep afloat," said Zibell. "It's really fun, which is a weird thing to say about work, but it's really fun once you're done with it, to look back and realize, I can do this, I can do things that are really hard and I can persevere. RAHI teaches not only work but confidence in yourself that you can do work and I think that's something really valuable, especially for rural students."