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By DANELLE LANDIS
Daily News Staff Writer
When RJ Danao’s “family group” at the summer Rural Alaska Honors Institute named themselves “50 Shades of Awesome,” it turned out to foreshadow how he would feel about the entire program.
“I wish people would apply for it,” he said. “It was an amazing experience.”
The RAHI program, held free of charge to accepted students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is a six-week program that immerses Alaska rural and Native participants in a college-like experience. Students stay in the UAF dormitories and earn eight to 10 college credits while completing university classes.
Danao, a Kayhi senior, said he first heard about the program from Kayhi and RAHI alumni Ginger Burke when he was a freshman. He said that he was the only person from Southeast Alaska this year. Other students this year hailed from communities such as Bethel, Unalaska and Barrow, Danao said.
The RAHI program utilizes program alumni as “tutor/counselors.” One of the tutor/counselors was Antoinina Hammersland, a Kayhi graduate, and Danao said that she helped him throughout his time there.
Danao said he became close to many of the attendees, and he still talks to many of them. He said he and his new friends plan to meet up in the future, and that he already misses them very much.
“It’s easy to make friends now, because I know how to make them easily,” he said. “So that’s not going to be a challenge.”
Danao explained that the program was created to help rural high school students succeed in college and graduate, because in many smaller towns and villages, there are limited opportunities for students to take classes such as Advanced Placement courses that help to prepare students for college.
Danao said that his favorite part of the program was traveling to Denali National Park and hiking the Angel Rocks trail to Chena Hot Springs.
He said he was surprised by one aspect of the program.
“I didn’t know it was going to be six weeks of intense college … It was actually harder than I thought,” he said.
One core class was required, he said, and they had an array of choices, including chemistry, business and pre-calculus. He chose the Process Technology class, which he said focused on “pipes and valves,” relating to the Alaska pipeline.
He also chose a yoga class, from an array of courses including karate and Alaska Native dance. He said they were in classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, and sometimes longer.
At one low point, Danao said he earned a D grade on a test in his Process Technology class, and that stressed him out so badly he was in tears. It spurred him to take action.
“Go hard core, because you don’t want another D,” he said he told himself. He ended up not only earning an A in that class, but enjoying it, because he’d learned so much.
One class was a bit boring, he said — his Studies Skills class. He explained that is because he already had gained vast experience in studying as a member of the Kayhi Academic Decathlon team, which he joined in his sophomore year.
One experience that Danao said he really enjoyed was a weekend at Camp Bingle in Fairbanks, which Danao described as “full of fun.” The different “family groups” of students competed in many games, including an obstacle course featuring hula hoops, basketball tossing and cracker eating. Another highlight Danao mentioned was piloting a canoe and paddle boat for his first time on the camp’s lake.
Another aspect embedded in the RAHI program is a research module, which Danao did not participate in. Students this past summer completed research projects addressing topics such as swimmer’s itch, sea lions and postpartum depression.
Another benefit of the program was that he made so many friends. He got along great with his roommate, whom he described as “very cool.”
A graduation was held at the end of the program, and Danao said he graduated with a 3.58 GPA and academic honors.
His “family group” won the prize for the highest group GPA, earning a spot for their group’s name to be engraved on a program trophy.
Danao said he definitely plans to go to college, and is deciding now on which one, and what he’d like to major in. He said the program gave him an optimistic view of what it will be like to live on campus.
When asked if the program would help him get accepted into colleges, Danao answered quickly.
“Definitely,” he said.