“Keep doing what you do even if you’re only interacting with a few students,” said Vincent Villella, speaking from his experience as the director of North West Area Health Education Center (AHEC) in Nome, Alaska, during his appearance in the School Success podcast with Mitchell Slater.
Villella’s dedication to education and healthcare goes beyond just being a director. His background includes teaching in a small village in southwest Alaska called Quinhagak for two years. This experience taught him the importance of perseverance and dedication, even in adversity.
Read on to discover his adventures and insights to gain valuable lessons that may benefit your personal and professional life.
Hands-On Learning for Rural Alaska Students
The NW AHEC is a non-profit organization that partners with local organizations, including the Northwest Arctic Career and Technical Center (NACTEC), to provide clinical rotations, continuing education courses, and community health worker training.
In addition, NACTEC collaborates with public schools and the Bering Strait School District to offer in-person learning experiences to rural Alaska students for two weeks at a time. These sessions allow students to explore career fields and gain skills they may not have access to otherwise, including life skills to help them be successful if they ever leave their community.
Through this partnership, NW AHEC and NACTEC are addressing healthcare workforce shortages and promoting health equity in underserved communities.
Addressing Challenges and Promoting Equity
Living and working in rural Alaska has unique challenges.
One of the biggest challenges facing rural education is logistics. In Alaska, setting up a residential program for students is more complex than parents dropping off their kids. Flights must be organized from numerous villages in the region, and supplies must come via barge or plane, which can take weeks. This logistical planning is essential to making a successful program.
Another significant challenge in rural Alaska is generational trauma and numerous adverse childhood experiences. This is especially true for Alaskan Native communities who have faced the damage done by colonialism.
Finally, staff attrition is another significant challenge rural education faces. The turnover rate is high, with teachers spending less than two years on average in the district, making it extremely challenging to provide high-quality education consistently. This constant churn of staff also results in low institutional memory, as new staff members must acclimate to the area where they’re working. These factors add to the difficulty of delivering quality education and create a disruptive and unstable environment for students.
The History of Trauma and Loss in the Native Alaskan Community
The Native Alaskan community has a history marked by trauma and loss. Generational trauma is linked to the historical trauma experienced by indigenous people due to colonialism, forced assimilation, and the loss of land, culture, and identity.
In the late 18th century, the Russian presence in Alaska brought about the enslavement of Native Alaskans, forced labor, and the spread of diseases that devastated indigenous populations. Later, after the US government acquired Alaska, their policy of assimilation in the late 19th century led to the forced relocation of Native Alaskans and the erasure of their culture.
The effects of these historical events have been long-lasting and continue to impact Native Alaskan communities to this day.
Efforts to address these issues include:
- Promoting self-determination and sovereignty.
- Supporting language and cultural revitalization.
- Acknowledging the lasting impacts of historical trauma.
Despite these challenges, Native Alaskans have fought for their rights and cultural preservation. Many organizations and communities have undertaken efforts to preserve and promote traditional ways of life.
Making a Difference in Rural Alaska
Villella shared a valuable lesson he learned from a colleague working at the Career and Technical Education department at Iḷisaġvik College in Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska. Villella candidly expressed his frustration about the lack of applicants for his programs when he was just getting started.
However, his colleague’s words resonated deeply with him as he reassured him that the value of a program lies not in the number of attendees but in the quality of the program being delivered.
Villella realized that making a difference in the lives of a few students attending a program is more important than having many attendees. He also understood that developing a high-quality program over time would attract students. This lesson resonated with Villella, especially in his area where the population is small, and a successful program could have only four to five kids in it.
Despite the challenges brought by the pandemic, NACTEC has maintained a solid program and retained its teachers.
Recently, they have been able to hold in-person sessions. Villella shared that the students were thrilled to learn career skills, interact with other students from different villages, and stay in the school’s facilities. With their programs’ success and community support, NACTEC is looking forward to a bright future.
Villella’s incredible journey is a testament to the power of positively impacting the world. So, if you’re looking for more stories like his, tune in to the School Success podcast and join us in celebrating the triumphs of individuals who are changing the world one step at a time.
Or, if you have a success story, we want to hear it! Share your story with us and help others learn from your experience. Let’s make a difference together!