Engineering professor encourages college community for Alaska Native students: ‘It’s come full circle’

Michele Yatchmeneff knew she wanted to be an engineer when she was a teenager. Yatchmeneff grew up in False Pass and King Cove in the eastern Aleutians. She was raised in an Unangax̂ family, living a subsistence lifestyle.

Right out of high school, she enrolled in engineering classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1999. She was looking forward to it.

Almost immediately, she began to feel that many of the other students didn’t want her.

“You would have students who wouldn’t talk to you or look at you in a certain way,” Yatchmeneff said. “Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s actually a slap in the face. They call you ‘villager’, they call you names.”

There are more Native Americans living in Alaska than anywhere else in the United States. But Alaska Native students are vastly underrepresented on college campuses. And when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and math — fields particularly dominated by white males — Alaska Native students face even greater barriers to entry.

When Yatchmeneff attended the school, there were only two Alaska Native students who had earned a system engineering degree from the University of Alaska. She felt isolated from being surrounded by students and professors who did not look like her.

After a year, she was transferred to Anchorage. But after a year there, she left Alaska altogether. She moved to Arizona and enrolled at Arizona State University, hoping it would be better there.

Instead, Yatchmeneff says the further she got in school, there were even fewer women and people of color.

Yatchmeneff felt alienated – and she internalized blame.

“I always thought that was my problem, why I didn’t belong,” Yatchmeneff said. “I always thought there must be something wrong with me, I must not be good enough.”

She says her grades started to drop and she even started losing interest in engineering.

Yatchmeneff returned to Alaska. She was lost, did not know what to do and wondered if she would ever succeed in university.

But then friends told her about an organization that helps Alaska Native students in STEM fields. Her first encounter showed her a world she never knew existed.

“There were all these other students who looked like me, and they were all doing internships, and they were sharing what they had done during their internships,” Yatchmeneff said. “It was like coming home.”

Since launching the Alaska Native Science and Engineering program in 1995, he has helped hundreds of students through scholarships, internships, and mentorship. They also have programs for elementary, middle and high school students.

After finding the program, Yatchmeneff finally felt she had the support she needed. She was able to get her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate from Purdue.

In 2015, Yatchmeneff became the first female Alaska Native professor of engineering in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. She has won awards from organizations such as the National Science Foundation. And last fall, she became executive director of Alaska Native Education and Outreach at UAA, working directly with the chancellor to help drive enrollment and graduation among students. Alaska Natives.

According to a 2019 study by ANSEP, the number of Alaskan Native students graduating in STEM more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2018. But even today, Yatchmeneff faces many of the same obstacles as when she was a student.

“A lot of the time students still don’t think I have the credentials to teach, they still don’t think I fit their image of what an engineer looks like,” she said. “So I must have cheated or I don’t belong.”

But not all students feel this. Yatchmeneff says students from marginalized communities told him it was because of his leadership and because they saw someone who looked like them teaching the class, that they knew they belonged.

Yatchmeneff says teaching and working with the school to support Alaska Native students is her chance to give back to her community.

“It’s an indigenous value that we always pass on,” she says. “Because I’ve had the support and because I’ve had help from people along the way…it’s come full circle.”

Yet, there is still a long way to go.

“We’re only scratching the surface,” Yatchmeneff said. “What you want is that you don’t need an Alaska Native-specific curriculum for science and engineering. We shouldn’t need this,” Yatchmeneff said.

She added, “But until we get to that point, we need programs like ANSEP to be there.”

About Jefferey G. Cannon

Check Also

Craven Community College will host a chamber music concert

NEW BERN, NC – Craven Community College will host a chamber music concert on May …