Fewer students in Anchorage graduated from college this spring. It's part of a downward trend nationwide, but graduation rates are even lower among Alaska Natives.

Only one out of every 10 Alaska Natives who start college at the University of Alaska Anchorage end up with a degree, according to Interim Vice Provost for Student Success, Claudia Lampman. 

At a part-time, commuter college, Lampman says it can be hard to build a sense of community. At UAA, building a space for Alaska Native students is especially important. 

"Survey data also shows that belongingness is also lower than we'd like to see it," Lampman said. 

Lampman has been tasked with boosting graduation rates at UAA as part of a university push to increase student success by 2020. One of her main goals is to build a team of advisers to help guide new students.

"All of my reading on student success and my 26 years as a professor tell me that a student needs to connect with people on campus. That can be friends in classes, it can be an adviser, it can be a faculty member," Lampman said. "But it takes at least one strong connection in order for a student to succeed."

Lampman hopes to produce more success stories like Michael Bourdukofsky's.

Bourdukofsky moved to Anchorage before college, leaving his hometown of St. Paul Island behind -- a small community of fewer than 600 people at the time.

"Making friends, developing a network of fellow students, that was really, really difficult for me," Bourdukofsky said of the transition. "And I think what helped me, ultimately, in that transition, was finding a commonality, a common interest with my peers."

Now, Bourdukofsky leads the Alaska Native Science and Engineering program at UAA, also known as ANSEP -- helping to build a community of Alaska Native academics early on.

"I feel that there's definitely a lack of exposure for rural students into specific career paths that might require a higher education, so that's something that we are adamant on doing at an early age," Bourdukofsky said. 

While ANSEP focuses on sciences, professors like Jeane Breinig from Kasaan are building curriculum and a community for students around native culture.

"They want faculty who look like them or who have similar experiences that they can have for role models and mentors," Breinig, interim associate vice chancellor for Alaska Natives and diversity, said. 

Starting next fall, all UAA students will be required to take at least one Alaska Native studies course.

"By adding this, we're making a very big point that it's important if you come to this university to learn something about Alaska Natives," Breinig said. 

It's part of a larger goal to send a signal both in and outside of the state that Alaska Native culture has a place on campus -- and Alaska Native students are an important piece of the college community.

While the Alaska Native graduation rate is low, Lampman says UAA's graduation rates, in general, are below the national average. Right now, only one in four students who start actually graduate within six years. Lampman hopes to boost that number to one in three by 2020.

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