‘A happy feeling. Like I’m proud of myself’: A look at the Alaska EXCEL program

Where young people from rural Alaska learn skills to succeed
Updated: Jun. 4, 2021 at 7:00 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A new generation of professionals and employees is being made at Alaska Pacific University through the Alaska EXCEL program. During their two week programs, young people from rural communities are learning all the skills they need to not only find jobs, but succeed in the modern workforce.

Right now, there are currently 25 students from 15 Alaska villages that are going through the program, which lasts four weeks in total.

The first two weeks are used to prep students for life after high school. They learn how to do everything from making a resume and holding their own in a job interview, to getting a driver’s license, open bank accounts, apply for scholarships and other things involved in getting into a college.

Lead instructor Carlene Liesch said that while there are opportunities to find work in rural Alaska, they tend to be less formal than finding a job in an urban environment. That’s why they fly the kids out to Anchorage for the program.

“Most of the villages don’t have DMVs, they don’t have college universities, and there aren’t a lot of job opportunities,” Liesch said.

Liesch is also a prime example of how the program can transform youth from rural parts of the state into a person who can succeed in a rural and urban environment. She went through it herself, which she said led to her going to the University of Alaska Anchorage to get an associate’s degree to be a paramedic. She then started an internship in Utah.

Now she’s back helping the students realize their potential, able to understand how they learn because she’s been in their shoes.

After they learn how to find a job and complete the work to get one, they are thrown into another two weeks of real experience in the workplace.

Alaska EXCEL has multiple partners that welcome the students into internship programs. They include: 49th State Brewing Company, Alaska Native Heritage Center, Pathfinder Aviation, JAV Imagery, Ryan Air, the Kuskokwim Corporation, and the Calista Native Corporation.

Once there, students are put to work and gain the experience they say they wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s a win-win for many businesses right now, as the workplace is looking for more employees.

We are so short staffed right now, it’s awesome that we’re able to work with programs like these to get these kind of ‘first-jobbers’ into the market,” said Chad Kaina at 49th State Brewing Company.

Some of the jobs feel a little bit closer to home for some of the students while still teaching them skills that they wouldn’t get in rural villages, like at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Cultural Program Manager Paul Asicksik said they have former interns teaching the new ones how to give presentations that not only help the center give tours, but connect the students with cultures other than the ones they come from.

“It makes them stronger in tourism, it makes them stronger and more confident in talking about their culture, and it makes it more personable,” Asicksik said. “They’re more comfortable talking with people from around the world,”

That’s where Myles Ayuluk is doing his first internship. He’s sharing traditional dances, songs, activities and games with tourists and other museum visitors, and loving every second of it.

“I feel a whole lot better than I did before,” he said. “Living in the village, I feel like there’s a lot more opportunities here in the city. And like I don’t think I would have made it this far without EXCEL. Before, I didn’t even know how to get a bank account. What they say is true, if you love what you’re doing, you never have to work a day in your life.”

What’s more is that once the students start to intern, they get paid through the program with funds from a State Workforce Development grant.

Now the students in the program are going on to realize more potential than they thought they had before EXCEL, and many are planning on being an example to the younger people back home.

“It means a lot to me,” said Ashley Ulroan. “I can go back to my community and tell this about the program. I can tell my younger siblings to sign up.”

“My confidence grew,” said Matthew Erik. “It’s a happy feeling. Like I’m proud of myself.”

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