A small but growing fellowship program aims to combat Alaska’s brain drain

  • Anchorage-based Alaska Fellows recently traveled to Homer for the weekend. From left: Eliza Posner, Matthew Robinson, Tiana Wang, Haleigh Reed and Andrew Hinton. (Photo by Andrew Hinton)

“Hey, let’s grab lunch next week!”

It’s a fairly standard text message that is sent and received countless times each day. But when Matthew Robinson read it, he laughed out loud. The sender lives 2,846 air miles away from Anchorage, in Chicago, Illinois.

“I’ve told him that I’m in Alaska, he knows,” said Robinson. “I’ve sent my friends photos, they’ve seen the posts on social media, but they just don’t think it’s real. Maybe they think I’m using Photoshop or something?”

Robinson has been living in Alaska since September. He’s part of the Alaska Fellows Program (AFP), a fall-to-spring residential fellowship program that pairs recent college graduates with community-focused organizations and professional mentors.

Although Robinson was immediately attracted to the idea of applying some of the concepts he’d learned while earning his degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, his choice to move to Anchorage was met with mixed reviews.

“Some of my mentors seemed mind-boggled over me coming here, a couple of them actually said ‘Why Alaska, what’s there for you?’ But my family was really supportive for me to get out of Chicago and experience more of the world, and my mom is excited to come visit in the spring,” Robinson said.

Robinson is one of 24 Alaska Fellows living in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Sitka. They hail from near and far — about 30% of fellows are from Alaska, and the rest are from all over the country. Host organizations pay between $20,000-$22,000 to participate in the program, and fellows receive a modest stipend and live communally for nine months while working for nonprofit or public sector organizations.

Examples of fellowship positions and responsibilities include college and career counseling at Sitka’s Mt. Edgecumbe High School, providing rural community health with OneHealth and conducting housing policy research with Cook Inlet Housing Authority. Outside of work, fellows have helped with tax preparation services in rural Alaska, butchered moose, ran the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, worked as deckhands on commercial fishing boats, coached Junior Nordic skiing or high school debate and joined the volunteer fire department.

Meredith Redick, who recently concluded her term as executive director, says that the program was launched in part to combat “brain drain,” which is when Alaskans leave the state for educational or professional opportunities and don’t return. AFP does the reverse, offering young Alaskans a reason to stay and attracting recent college graduates to the state.

Alaska has the most unstable population in the country, with thousands of people coming and going each year. Recent trends show fewer people moving to the state while the number of those leaving remains consistent, causing population declines. In 2020, the state lost an estimated 4,000 people.

So far, nearly half of the fellows have extended their time in Alaska for at least a year after their fellowship concluded, with many staying indefinitely.

Redick is one of them. Back in 2016, she was unsure of what she wanted to do after completing her two-year commitment with Teach for America, and was drawn to the built-in community of the program.

“The idea of moving to a new city and getting an apartment by myself was terrifying,” she says. “But with AFP, you know where you’re living, there’s a site coordinator, and you have the other fellows experiencing everything together.”

During her fellowship, Redick worked for the University of Alaska Southeast in Sitka providing science education to K-12 and undergraduate students, and then stayed on as a site coordinator which grew into becoming AFP’s first full-time Executive Director.

“There are clear career pathways if you want to work in medicine, law, or finance, but if you’re interested in nonprofits or local government, it’s not as straightforward,” she says. “Alaska is an incubator, a great place to get your feet wet and try new things while you figure out what you want.”

Her hope for the program is that participants see Alaska as a place to launch a fulfilling career and be part of the community.

AFP founder Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins feels the same.

“It’s been so gratifying to see fellows put down roots in Alaska, investing in their communities, buying houses, moving into leadership positions professionally, and mentoring new fellows who are just starting the program.”

He says he started the program because an informal college summer internship program he’d begun in 2010 had led to great experiences for participants.

“Many of the students who spent the summer in Sitka were graduating and looking for something similar, so I thought to myself, ‘Why not create a program that lets recent grads spend a whole year in Sitka?’ So that’s what we did, and people had life-changing experiences, and ran with it. Now we’re in four different cities.”

Robinson, who is splitting his time between the Municipality of Anchorage 49th State Angel Fund and the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development doing entrepreneurial ecosystem building work, has enjoyed connecting with local startup founders.

“There’s a real urgency to entrepreneurs here, and they seem motivated to find resources to help them,” says Robinson. “And the community really encourages and pushes them too. I think there’s a recognition that entrepreneurs here are building business that Alaska needs, in areas like air cargo or energy efficiency.”

So far, he’s helped organize Alaska Startup Week; regularly hosts 1 Million Cups, a weekly event to educate, engage, and connect entrepreneurs; and helps facilitate Upstart Alaska, an entrepreneur development accelerator. Robinson has been impressed by Alaska entrepreneurs’ adaptability, something he’s working on for himself.

“I’m getting to know myself better, and am learning to adapt to new environments. In Chicago, everything is very up tempo, and there’s always something going on, it almost feels like the city is moving nonstop,” he says. “In Anchorage, the focus is more about doing things outside, and I’ve really come to appreciate that kind of activity and the peace it brings. I’ve learned it doesn’t take much for me to enjoy where I am.”

Despite his growing appreciation for Alaska, Robinson will return to Chicago in the summer to finish up his master’s degree. Redick says she’s planning to stay in Alaska.

“I didn’t expect to stay here, but I’ve been in Sitka five years now and it truly feels like home. I think it would be really hard to live anywhere else.”

Gretchen Fauske is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, board president for Anchorage Downtown Partnership and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

12/02/2021 - 11:36am