Ketchikan High School senior Savannah Nieshe got a taste of college life as a participant in the Rural Alaska Honors Institute on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus early this summer.
According to information at www.uaf.edu, the RAHI program was founded at the request of the Alaska Federation of Natives in 1983 with the aim to prepare rural and Alaska Native high school students for “academic excellence and college success.”
In an interview at Kayhi this past week, Nieshe said the six-week, all-expenses-paid program kicked off in early June with testing for placement into math and English classes, and familiarization with staff, Tutor-Counselors, or “TCs,” and other students.
The group of 52 students was divided into smaller groups who worked together during the duration of the program, Nieshe said. Attendees were given the choice of following either an academic track or a research track.
Nieshe said students in the academic track all take English classes, but then choose among other course offerings including chemistry, business, math and engineering by ranking them from their most preferred to least.
Nieshe ranked business as her top choice.
“I want to go to college for business,” Nieshe said. “I would like to major in accounting — either a major or a minor — and then have business administration or management as the other one.”
Nieshe said her interest in business and accounting was inspired at a young age by her parents.
“Both my parents have been in a manager position,” she said. “My dad still is, but my mom isn’t. My mom used to books for Stonedeck, so she just knows how to do that, and I’ve always seen her budget and mess with money and whatnot throughout my life in the house.”
Nieshe said her experiences as a Ketchikan Charter School student also were pivotal in the formation of her career plans.
“I also took personal finance and classes like that,” at KCS, she said.
“One of our electives was called ‘money matters,’” she added. “I think of it kind of like personal finance. You got a pretend job. They set your salary, your spouse’s salary, and then if you had a kid or an animal or anything you had to take care of, and then your had to budget for the month including groceries, buying a house — all of that.
“I loved it. I went through three years of it,” she concluded.
Although Nieshe is passionate about business and accounting, she said she does not enjoy math classes.
“I love messing with money, because money in my mind, it’s easier because the formulas are different,” she explained. “Honestly, I don’t think you need above algebra II for money-type math like accounting. All the math I need for that, I understand a lot more.
“It’s more of like, a material-like substance, so you’re able to grasp the knowledge about it easier,” she said.
After the RAHI students were settled, they started classes at 8 a.m. each day.
“Which I hope I do not have in college,” Nieshe said, laughing.
Nieshe starts her days this school year, however, by arriving for Kayhi Swim and Dive team practices at 5:30 a.m. each day. She also works as a lifeguard for the Gateway Aquatic Center.
Nieshe keeps herself busy at Kayhi as well, as a member of the Drama, Debate and Forensics team, Rotary Interact, track and National Honor Society.
One of the goals of the RAHI program is to familiarize students with living and working on a college campus. Nieshe said it did take some adjustment on her part to get used to simply navigating the campus and making it to classes in different buildings.
“At first, it seemed like a long walk,” she said of getting to her early English class. “But then after getting used to having to walk everywhere again, it was pretty simple.”
Nieshe earned eight college credits by completing her English, business, library science and study skills classes at the RAHI program.
Not surprisingly, she especially enjoyed the business class, and ended up graduating at the top of her class, earning 1,001 points out of a possible 1,000.
Nieshe said the different classes are sponsored by various businesses, with the business track sponsored by Wells Fargo. She added that, without the sponsors, each student would pay about $8,500 for their participation.
“Our end of the semester presentation was that you had to create a business,” she said. “You had to figure out all these different steps like, how you were going to build it, where were you going to building it, who it’s marketed towards. Like, if you were doing a restaurant, like I did — your menu, your message, how you were going to advertise, what type of loans, how much money you needed. We had to have loans through Wells Fargo.”
To practice for the final presentation, Nieshe said business students made presentations to the class weekly, based on their textbook readings.
“That helped us prepare for the end presentation, which we ended up doing not only in front of our class, but we had TCs and the director and the person who is going to be director next year, as well as people from Wells Fargo attending,” she said.
Her business was a restaurant she called “Eat Indigenous” that would serve traditional Alaska food as well as those dishes served with modern twists. She said she was asked many questions from her audience, “because you don’t really see a whole lot of places like that.”
She said the main challenge of her restaurant idea was “a lot of legal loopholes I’d have to jump through.”
“I like the idea,” she added. “I never personally would create it, just because of how complicated it would get. I believe that’s why there really aren’t places that are like that.”
RAHI students also were allowed to choose from three physical education classes: yoga, Native dancing or karate. Nieshe chose yoga.
“I wasn’t sure how it was going to be,” she said of her time anticipating RAHI. “I really didn’t want to choose something that would be tougher, because I didn’t want to have a huge workload on my hands, so I chose yoga, which was nice because we got to nap in there.”
On Saturdays, the RAHI students explored the area through hiking, canoeing, white water rafting and visiting area attractions such as Chena hot springs.
In the evenings and on Sunday afternoons, students worked during mandatory two-hour study halls.
Nieshe said the program truly was effective in helping attendees to try out the college experience, explaining that although attending wasn’t exactly like college, it was very close, and “they’re kind of holding your hand through it.”
She described some of the support and experiences the program offered.
“Leaving home for six weeks seems to a lot of kids who really haven’t left home or haven’t left the island that it’s kind of scary, but it’s a lot of fun,” she said. “They work really hard to make sure that you’re connected socially and you’re allowed to call home any time you want. You’re allowed to get packages and send packages out.”
She said a few students from small villages that had never been to a large city or a college campus needed some help adjusting. One student, she recalled, did not speak English as his first language, and received translation help from one of the TCs.
Nieshe said she did have previous experience as a participant of an educational program, through attending the Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership Conference, which is a program for high school sophomores.
She listed other benefits she received as a RAHI participant.
“For one, it gave me college credits, so I’m even further in my college career,” she said. “It also opened more doors. So, going through RAHI means it’s going to be super easy for me to get into places like UAF and the Alaska system in general. The library science class also helped me to learn a little bit more about online library databases.”
Nieshe mentioned the benefit of garnering a closer link to the University of Alaska system, and is considering a range of options for her academic future
“If I did go through the UA system, I’d go to Anchorage, but with the budget cuts our schools aren’t going to be as highly accredited, so I’m looking outside of that, just because of that reason,” she said. “I don’t know what classes they’re going to offer and if their business classes are going to be as good as they were in the past.”
She said she is looking into attending Fort Lewis College, partly because she is Tlingit, and that college offers tuition waivers to Native Alaskans. She said she also is considering Creighton University, because she is impressed by their business classes.
Nieshe summed up her thoughts on the RAHI program.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said, “The school work, yeah it’s more school, but honestly, it’s helping you a lot in the long run. I mean, you’re saving $8,500, so I think it’s worth it.”