On a sunny October afternoon in Spokane, Washington, over 2,500 Indigenous students were gathered to attend the 2023 American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) National Conference.
Among them were a cohort of more than 100 Sealaska and Sealaka Heritage Institute (SHI) sponsored college and high school students, Alaska Youth Stewards crew members, and Southeast Alaska educators, representing the many shareholders and descendants pursuing careers paths in science, technology, engineering and math.
When approaching a research project — and life in general — Dr. Sonia Ibarra, winner of this year’s Indigenous Excellence Award for her research on access to traditional foods, is first and foremost concerned with something many scientists overlook entirely: the need to build trust, nurture relationships and support the community where her work will take place.
Her way of welcoming the Sealaska-sponsored attendees was no different. Dr Ibarra’s capacity and strength as a mentor is centered around taking the time to care to listen. “I’ve learned that the more you give, the richer you become.” With that, she sent the students off feeling empowered and inspired for a weekend of personal growth and professional development.
Sealaska first began sponsoring students to attend the AISES National Conference in 2021 The unique, three-day event focuses on career growth and exploration for Indigenous students interested in STEM, providing mentorship and networking opportunities while meaningfully incorporating culture and tradition.
“In the past few years, attendance (at AISES) by Southeast Alaska students and participants has skyrocketed,” said Bob Girt, Sealaska’s Rural Community Liaison. “Sealaska, and its Shareholder Development and Heritage Institute Teams in particular, are among those to be thanked for the tremendous increase in participation.”
Rural school participation has also increased, said Girt. Among those in attendance were AYS students from multiple rural communities: Angoon, Hoonah, Kake and Klawock.
Sealaska’s teams also had the opportunity to recruit for internships, Codefy and scholarships through SHI and the AYS program.
This year, Girt prepared a presentation highlighting the AYS program on POW Island interfacing with Sealaska’s Natural Resource interns as well as a community forestry partnership on POW Island; the Klawock Indigenous Forest Stewards Partnership. “The purpose of doing so was to broaden the exposure of the AYS Program during the AISES venue, as well as showcase its ongoing success,” said Girt.
Senior Shareholder Development Manager Kayla Roberts remembers when Sealaska’s presence at AISES began just four years ago. She only met a few other attendees with ties to Southeast Alaska, she said.
“There has been huge growth,” said Roberts. “And not only that – we have created a community of students, teachers, and professionals who feel like they belong in an Indigenous space and know that there is a community of support alongside them.”