Alaska Native students strive for representation in engineering programs
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Michele Yatchmeneff discovered engineering when she was 17 years old after her professor pointed out that she was good at math.
“I had met a chemistry teacher, and he said, ‘You’d be good at engineering’, and at first I didn’t even know what engineering was,” Yatchmeneff said. “I thought it was the person that sits on the train caboose and blows the whistle.”
Yatchmeneff is now the executive director at Alaska Native Education and Outreach, and although she didn’t discover her passion for engineering until age 17, she soon decided that she could help other Alaska Natives through it.
After high school, Yatchmeneff began studying electrical engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but after discovering it would not fit her goals, she transferred to the University of Alaska Anchorage to pursue a degree in civil engineering.
While attending UAA, she discovered something was missing from her classes. Representation.
“There would be just one of us sometimes in a class,” Yatchmeneff said. “... I’ve had professors call out that I was the only female, or I was doing really well and I happened to be female.”
This created a sense of isolation for Yatchmeneff.
“It makes you feel like you don’t belong,” Yatchmeneff said. “It makes you feel like there is something wrong with you if you don’t see people that look like you, in your environment.”
It is a feeling Yatchmeneff has spent her entire career battling.
“It makes you question whether or not you should actually continue when you don’t see people that look like you,” Yatchmeneff said.
After graduating from UAA, Yatchmeneff attended school in Arizona, where she realized a similar feeling.
“As I got further along there was less and less females, and less and less people of color,” Yatchmeneff said. “I, again, started feeling isolated when I was there as well.”
Feeling discouraged, she returned to Alaska on a winter break with the intention of leaving her engineering dream behind.
“I turned everything that I thought was telling me not to pursue engineering into myself and thinking that I didn’t belong in this track,” Yatchmeneff said.
However, while on break, she attended a meeting for the Alaska Native Science and Engineering program (ANSEP). The program focuses on supporting Native Alaskan students and preparing them for academia. Immediately, Yatchmeneff felt a sense of home.
“I had other students that looked like me, “Yatchmeneff said. “Other students that could tell me about their internships and helped me realize that I belonged, and that I fit into engineering and that I could help other people be engineers.”
Yatchmeneff now has her Ph.D. in civil engineering and is a civil engineering professor at UAA, in addition to being the executive director for Alaska Native Education and Outreach, where she gets to work alongside current ANSEP students, helping provide them a place to call home.
Katherine Sakeagak, a third-year student at UAA, basically grew up in the Alaska Native Science and Engineering building. Her father, she said, was one of the original students in the organization. She remembers feeling a similar feeling of isolation in high school.
“I remember in high school before I started the ANSEP program, it was a bit different where I was kind of the only female Alaska Native,” Sakeagak said.
Now, both Yatchmeneff and Sakeagak have a place on campus where they both can feel accepted and pushed by their peers.
“When I started (at) ANSEP, it felt right, just being around other students like me. It really helped,” Sakeagak said.
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