The 408 residents of Tuntutuliak Alaska, live at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, 450 miles west of Anchorage over a mountain range and across a seemingly endless and treeless rolling tundra plain. The people of Tuntutuliak speak Yupik. The land is pure wilderness. There is no road. The closest road is in Anchorage. Moose, caribou, wolves and every animal one might encounter in western Alaska live here.
Randall Friendly is a Yup’ik Eskimo who was raised in Tuntutuliak. People there catch the food they eat. Until 2012, he and his family would leave the village at the end of the school year and head out in boats up and down river to catch fish and seals, hunt birds and gather wild plants for the next winter. They would camp all summer and each fall, when school started, return to the village. But not this year.
This year, Randall graduated from high school, and in the fall he will be a student at the University of Alaska Anchorage majoring in Biological Sciences. Randall’s dream is to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, managing the massive Yukon Delta Wildlife Refuge where his family has lived for the past 10,000 years. The 19-million-acre refuge is bigger than West Virginia and is home to nearly 25,000 Yup’ik Eskimo people in 35 villages.
Until recently a dream like that for a guy like Randall was nearly an impossibility because of a school system that does a poor job of preparing students for college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 40 percent of Alaska Native students do not graduate from high school within four years. In eighth-grade math, 52 percent of students are below proficient levels and 32.2 percent are far below proficient levels.
Despite these odds, Randall’s dream came true, and in summer 2014 he found himself lying by a stream on Kodiak Island monitoring the behavior of brown bears for the Fish and Wildlife Service, a 12-guage shotgun tucked beneath this arm. The bears, which stand 10 feet tall, weigh 1,500 pounds and run more than 30 miles per hour, rely on salmon as a primary source of protein. In the fall, when the fish are plentiful, they eat 90 pounds each day. However, in 2014 the salmon run collapsed and there was increased competition among the bears, which weren’t in a good mood.
Randall was able to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service through the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP). He joined the program in high school in 2012 and traveled to the University of Alaska Anchorage for five weeks each summer to take college classes from university professors in the ANSEP Acceleration Academy. This summer he is an ANSEP Summer Bridge student. Summer Bridge students complete college courses at the beginning of the summer and then do professional internships with partner organizations.
The objective of the ANSEP Summer Bridge is to provide recent high school graduates with real-world professional experiences doing science and engineering projects with practicing professionals. Students work in state and federal agencies and with owners and contractors in Alaska’s oil and gas industry. Since 1998, of 277 participants, 95 percent have successfully transitioned to bachelor’s-degree programs in science and engineering.
During Summer Bridge Randall is once again working with the Fish and Wildlife Service researchers assessed the influence of salmon on brown bears’ seasonal movements, distribution and use of salmon-spawning streams. Field methods used included the documentation of the timing, magnitude and extent of use of selected spawning streams by both the salmon and the bears. Randall recorded brown bear activities, measured discharge from streams using flow meters and staff gauges, mapped the morphology of tributaries with GPS, located and retrieved dropped GPS bear collars using radio telemetry, analyzed salmon data for daily migration patterns, and studied the feasibility of using video and photos taken with aerial surveys to monitor the abundance of bears along streams as well as spawning salmon.
ANSEP inspires students early in the education pathway and guides them to opportunities in science and engineering where they can have a seat at the table when decisions are made about the land they have cared for over the last 10,000 years. A great experience for a village kid with a big dream.