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Iḷisaġvik rolls out new business degree program

September 8th, 2017 | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

The only tribal college in the state is rolling out its very first four-year degree program this school year.

"I am super excited and I feel that our entire campus is giving all they can," said Dr. Pearl Kiyawn Brower, president of Iḷisaġvik College. "I think everybody is excited and interested and it really has invigorated, in a lot of ways, the knowledge that we are growing and making a difference in the educational field here. We are absolutely excited for what this means for our institution and for what this means for residents of the North Slope."

Historically, the school has only been accredited to run two-year associate's degree programs and issue vocational certificates. However, the North Slope Borough approved an ordinance last December to allow the campus to begin offering the more advanced degrees, which put it on track to begin the accreditation process, as the Sounder previously reported.

Iḷisaġvik anticipates being fully accredited for the program by spring, so it's started enrolling students on the full track this fall.

"I think residents recognize that business is one of our biggest economic opportunities on the North Slope. We have the borough. We have the regional corporations and the village corporations and the nonprofits, and they are all business-related. So, the best opportunities for jobs are in business," said Brower. "We also have a very active, engaging faculty group who are supporting that business program, encouraging students to be a part of it, and helping them through the process."

Those opportunities are a focus of the program, which will allow students who have already completed the associate's in business to tack on a final two years to earn a bachelor's.

"Every organization, [both for] profit [and] nonprofit, or government has to function as efficiently and effectively as possible," said Assistant Professor David Rice, who heads the program. "There is a limit to how much revenue a business or government entity can bring in. Consequently, every dollar must be spent wisely, requiring the management of people and resources. The business program helps students gain the skills to work effectively within all levels of an organization. In addition, our emphasis on Iñupiaq values helps to shape our curriculum and instructional methods. We think this makes a business degree from Iḷisaġvik unique and especially valuable to our students."

As a tribal college, Iḷisaġvik has concentrated on the particular needs of Alaska Native and rural students, which has influenced how it runs its programs. Teachers, like Rice, take care to focus on the applicability of their course material with that in mind, he said.

"Our students are as smart and capable as the students at any community college," he said. "What some of them lack is the knowledge and skills to apply their abilities and be hired for the variety of jobs available on the North Slope. We have seen students who enter the college with limited job skills, but graduate with the skills and knowledge that leads to good employment. Many of our already employed students and graduates experience promotions, and we see more and more of them moving into management roles. In addition, the more jobs that local residents fill boosts the local economy because more income is spent within the North Slope."

A more advanced degree will allow students to begin one step further ahead, administrators said.

All of the courses accommodate distance-learning students, as well, so people can take courses from their homes in the outlying villages without leaving to live on campus.

It's an approach that's helped bolster the popularity of the business program, which is important because interest in the associate's degree in business is what spurred administrators to consider the area of study for the first four-year program, Brower explained.

Initially, they had wanted to do a bachelor's track in elementary education, but didn't have a large enough cohort of students who had already completed the shorter degree to funnel directly into the more advanced program, if it started.

"It was hard for us to get interest," she said. "With the business program, it had been our biggest program since our inception. We had over 40 graduates from just that program, so we knew there was interest in the four-year."

Now that the business program is fully underway, Brower said the college does have plans to establish a second bachelor's degree program in elementary education with an emphasis on indigenous learning, but it will take some time to fully plan it.

"We absolutely recognize the need to have our own local residents in our schools. What we have done is started small with the associate's degree in indigenous early learning and we are building that cohort so that, once we are ready to offer the four-year, we have students who are ready to move right into that program," she said. "We want to take a lot of care and be really intentional with that roll-out."

So, as of this fall, students are able to enroll in the college's usual spread of two-year degrees and certification programs along with the four-year business program, which will put them on track to be Iḷisaġvik's first graduating class of bachelor's students down the road.

"I think it's a real, true, testament to the importance of education on the North Slope and the future of what could be and what will be," Brower said.

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at


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