In Alaska, when you hear the word “pipeline,” you tend to think of oil traveling for 800 miles. In this Frontiers program, we take a look at another kind of pipeline — one for academic success, in which students from small, isolated communities can get credentials from the Rural Human Services (RHS) program, headquartered at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Some of the highlights of this week’s program:

    • Profile of Elizabeth Fleagle, a Fairbanks elder who mentors students in the Rural Human Services Program.
    • A look at how this flexible program allows students to earn a RHS certificate over a two-year period, by attending an intensive week of class once a month.
    • Our guests this week: Annie Hopper, the statewide manager for RHS; and a recent graduate of the program, Dora Smith, currently a case manager at Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

Many students in the program are already working on the front lines of some of Alaska’s most difficult social problems — suicide, sexual assault and domestic violence. The RHS program gives them a basic working knowledge of these issues they can use on the job. Most of the students work for tribal governments or nonprofits, which constantly struggle with a high burnout rate — possibly because many of the workers have experienced trauma in their own lives, which can be re-triggered in the process of helping others.

That’s why the RHS program emphasizes self-healing, which seems to have resulted in higher retention rates. The RHS certificate has also been a stepping-stone to higher education. After earning their credentials, many have gone on to pursue degrees in social work.

To me, this is an exciting frontier — in which a program designed to meet some dire needs in rural Alaska, also serves a career ladder for those, who by culture and experience, are well suited to serve. Over the years, we’ve seen how itinerant social workers don’t seem to have the same impact as counselors based in the community.

There’s also a uniquely Alaskan creativity in problem solving that’s at work here. RHS says its mission is to transform rural Alaska. While that’s a tall order, RHS is definitely one of those little-known success stories worth hearing about.


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