Summer program preps students for future in business


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A group of students in the Rural Alaska Honors Institute are seen in this 2009 photo on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. The program for rural and Alaska Native students in their junior or senior year of high school has been around for 32 years. Denise Wartes (back, far right) has been with the program for 26 of those years. Professor Betty “Liz” Ross (back, fourth from left) teaches an Introduction to Business course during the six-week summer program.

Photo/Courtesy/Rural Alaska Honors Institute

A business-focused offering through the Rural Alaska Honors Institute is helping funnel high school students into the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Management.

The summer institute, or RAHI, is for rural and Alaska Native students who are juniors or seniors in high school, and have spent most or all of their life in rural Alaska, according to Program Manager Denise Wartes.

Wartes has been involved with the program for 26 of its 32 years. UAF began the program at the request of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Students take 9 to 11 credits, including an academic elective, with classes all day. An introduction to business course is one of the options.

The class teaches the high schoolers about financial management and the personal and business level.

More than 1,397 students have attended the six-week summer program, including some second- and third-generation students. All have graduated from high school, and they’ve gone on to earn a total of 702 certificates and degrees, including at a graduate or doctoral level. Participants are about twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree as other Alaska Native students from rural communities, according to the American Institutes for Research.

The largest portion of college-bound RAHI alumni attend UAF, and quite a few of the business-track students later attend to UAF to study business, said UAF professor Betty Ross, who teaches the course.

UAF students Chalisa Attla and DeAnne Lincoln said the business class helped influence their decisions to attend UAF and study business there.

Lincoln attended in 2010 and is now at UAF, and planning to graduate in spring 2015. RAHI influenced her decision to study accounting at UAF, she said.

“I really enjoy the whole business field, and I enjoy doing math, too,” Lincoln said.

Attla is a senior in UAF’s School of Management pursuing a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance. She’ll graduate in December, and wants to take the CPA exam and work in accounting. Eventually, she said she’d like to work for an Alaska Native corporation, she said, and get her master’s degree.

RAHI helped push her down that path when she attended in 2008; both Attla and Lincoln took the business course with Ross.

The course covers a variety of topics: personal finance, the basics of running a business, ethics and character development. It’s much of the same material as the Introduction to Business class Ross teaches during the regular school year, but more hands-on, and with a smaller class.

During the course, students develop a business plan that could be used in their village. They use what they learn in the finance model to develop a budget and incorporate it into the business plan, Ross said. Ross said she has been teaching the class for 10 years, and seen a variety of ideas.

“They’ve been rather creative,” Ross said.

The students have created business plans for restaurants, a youth and teen center, a game center, a rifle range and other entities. Once the plans are developed, students give a formal presentation about their idea, Ross said.

Some of the students, like Lincoln, eventually end up members of the Native Alaskan Business Leaders program at UAF that Ross advises. There, they develop a business plan each year to take to the national American Indian Business Leaders competition, which is judged by members of the business community.

In 2013, the UAF Native Alaskan Business Leaders group placed first in the nation. They have previously won chapter of the year, and usually place in the top third, Ross said.

Lincoln’s RAHI business plan was for a gym, because White Mountain doesn’t have one, but Ross’ favorite NABL plan was to sell Alaska Native art, which the group developed for the 2013 competition.

Students that don’t attend UAF also go on to use the skills they learn. Ross said some go back to their villages and start a business as a sole proprietor. She said one student from Point Hope eventually became a mechanic there.

“He stays in the village, and during his off-whaling season, he works on machines,” Ross said.

Ross said the course is a partnership with Wells Fargo. They provide funding, access to hands-on banking software and help with the course. New York Life and Alyeska Pipeline Co. are also sponsors of the program.

The software teaches check writing, how to balance a checkbook, develop a personal budget and the value of money, as well as business budgeting and financial statements. Students each get a CD with the program on it.

“It’s a wonderful tool,” Ross said.

The partnership with Wells Fargo extends beyond the software, she said. In past years, Wells Fargo employees have observed the business plan presentations and talked with students as well, Ross said.

In addition to using the Wells Fargo software and giving lectures, Ross said she invites guest speakers into the classroom and students visit on-campus business.

RAHI also includes activities outside of the classroom — like whitewater rafting, camping and volunteering — and each student takes a recreation class.

Attla and Lincoln both took Alaska Native Dance; Attla said she appreciated that the education focused on Native traditions and culture and she enjoyed learning dances from other Alaska Native cultures.

Building connections, fostering growth

The non-academic activities, and the classes, help build a community among the students.

Lincoln said the connections she made with classmates, instructors and friends were a valuable part of the experience.

“We’re still good friends,” she said.

Lincoln said she also appreciated the chance to live on campus and experience dorm life, which eventually helped her choose UAF. It also eased the transition from White Mountain to Fairbanks when she started college.

“It was a lot easier to come onto campus and actually know some people,” she said.

Attla said the structure of the RAHI program helps students get to know one another: everyone had to have a roommate in the dorms, and all their activities were done in groups. It pushed them to open up to each other, she said.

“You learned — these people are going to be your network in the future,” Attla said.

Attla still checks in with her RAHI classmates from time to time, and said she has also finds a connection with alumni who attended in different years.

“When I worked at Doyon, a lot of my coworkers were RAHI alumni,” Attla said.

She worked at Doyon Ltd., the Alaska Native regional corporation for the Interior, for three years as a receptionist while also taking classes at UAF.

Attla said she’s always been independent, but enjoyed seeing her peers become more independent and get a taste of college life during the summer program.

Now she’s seen her younger cousins go through RAHI.

“It really does seem like they kind of bloom during RAHI, they really get to open up,” she said.

Character development and personal growth are meant to be part of the summer program, and Ross said she includes it in the business course.

The business class includes a character enrichment week infused into the curriculum, based in part on a character development curriculum Ross learned at Air Force Academy training.

The Wells Fargo hands-on banking program also includes a component about how personal values play into the workplace and businesses, she said.

Ross said the students talk about what might be questionable in a business setting, and how to identify and handle an ethical dilemma.

The issues they discuss are revolve both around life as a teenager, and business concerns, she said.

“We talk about decision-making, doing the right thing,” she said.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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