Working toward a bachelor's degree in Alaska Native Studies, Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart is gaining knowledge she has long been seeking.
As a lifelong Kenai resident her parents taught her to take pride in her Native heritage whether through learning language or traditions, such as dance or beading.
Her mother, Karen Nugent, is a member of the Paiute Tribe at Pyramid Lake Reservation in Nevada, and her father, James Shaginoff, is an Athabascan from Ckickaloon, a small village northeast of Anchorage. They were raised in a boarding school and a children's home, respectively.
"When my parents grew up it wasn't something they had the opportunity to learn, so they always instilled in me to be proud of who I was and to look toward who I was no matter how I learned," Shaginoff-Stuart said. "I was always searching to find out who my family was and learn more about it."
Shaginoff-Stuart started working with the Central Peninsula's Kenaitze Indian Tribe in her early 20s. In 1991 -- around the same time Shaginoff-Stuart was beginning work with the tribe -- Peter Kalifornsky, a Dena'ina elder, finished writing "A Dena'ina Legacy -- K'tl'egh'i Sukdu: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky."
"I began to take classes and learn who Kalifornsky was," she said. "That's how I learned about the tribe."
Shaginoff-Stuart has worked for the tribe for more than 20 years. She is the education services coordinator, and although not an official member she said she considers the tribe members her family.
The main component of her job is helping local kids connected with the tribe receive funding for education. Grants are awarded based on available funds and students' actual needs.
Services include a higher education program, the Circle of Life scholarship and job training. Additional programs aimed at connecting elders with youth are also offered.
"Education can be many things," Shaginoff-Stuart said of her job. "It isn't just formal education. It's everybody working together and finding those moments where we learn from each other."
When she took the position five years ago, she had a caseload of 10 students. Pictures of the students are all she saw during the first year. As time passed, however, she met face to face with members of the program.
She said she tries to stay in touch with students' families during and after the program.
"They can always come (to the Kenaitze Indian Tribe) for services, or if they know of someone who needs help we can do that," she said. "It's not just the door is closed once you leave the (education) program."
She helps about 18 students. Funds are generally used for tuition and books.
In the middle of a round table in Shaginoff-Stuart's office sits an urn, and the exterior of the urn resembles fish skin. The piece of art belongs to Joel Isaak, a 23-year-old University of Alaska Fairbanks student receiving funds from the tribe.
He started receiving funds about six years ago, attending classes at Kenai Peninsula College while still in high school.
The education department supports students and cares about students' success, he said.
"Though the relationship we have is professional when it comes to my school work, Sondra and the staff like to hear updates, often times about the pieces that I'm working on," he said.
Students receiving funding through the tribe must maintain a GPA of 2.5 or higher to remain eligible.
Early education is important to tribe, and until this year the majority of funds for tutoring and other education opportunities came from the Title VII Program.
Title VII, or the Indian Education Program, provided funding for tutoring and an art camp among other services. The funds are handled by the Kenai Peninsula Bureau School District.
The parent advisory council of Title VII sets priorities for the funding. Last year, the priority was cultural enrichment, which the council asked the tribe to help with and hence the art camp. It is now tutoring, and the school district decided to handle it alone.
Shaginoff-Stuart said she was a little upset the tribe's funding was cut, as it was used to connect with students and families.
School was difficult at a young age, she said. Shaginoff-Stuart said she used the Title VII programs, previously called the Johnson O'Malley Programs, extensively.
"I really used the tutoring, but I also always attended when they brought people for sewing or beading workshops," she said. "My mom always took my sister and I. She would say, 'Let's do it. No matter what tradition it's from. Just do it and then find out how it applies to us.'"
The organization is seeking alternative methods to fund its art camp, which has occurred the past five years.
"The art camp teaches more than just art. It teaches the values of our people," Sandy Wilson, acting assistant education services coordinator, said. "We're trying to work it out, because it really does help the kids."
Returning to Kenai for the summers, Isaak helps teach at the art camp. The younger students get a lot out of the experience, he said.
"There are personal relationships formed at events like that, and they carry on throughout the years," he said.
High school-aged students receive a half-credit for attending the camp, but most kids just want to be with their friends, Shaginoff-Stuart said. Students who receive funding are encouraged to return to the community. The choice is left open, but Shaginoff-Stuart sends information about tribe projects to past students. People send responses all the time, she said.
Isaak is graduating from UAF with a fine arts degree this semester, so he is returning. He said he wants to attend graduate school, but plans to come back.
"That's kind of my five-year plan, but I do want to return to the community and be involved," he said.
Students who qualify for funding go to a college or university within Alaska or in the Lower 48. They have chosen schools in California, New York and Texas among others, Shaginoff-Stuart said.
Kenaitze Indian Tribe member Amber Huhndorf, 23, who received her public health degree from Oregon State University, works at the tribe's health clinic. She said she always wanted to work with Alaska Natives. Her grandparents homesteaded in Nikiski during the 1950s.
"I've always known I wanted to work with Alaska Natives, but I didn't know what opportunities would open up," she said. "Coming back and working with the tribe worked out so great. And working directly with employees that have supported me throughout school is phenomenal."
The tribe plans to have a new health clinic by 2013. Demand for health services is and will remain high, so Shaginoff-Stuart and her assistant encourage education in the health field.
Someday the students will be running the tribe's programs, Wilson said. Both Wilson and Shaginoff-Stuart received funding for their educations through the tribe.
Shaginoff-Stuart is taking online classes through UAF. She said she hopes to finish soon.
"The tribe here has encouraged me to take classes and make sure that I finish, so I have the tribe and my family to thank for keeping me going," she said. "This has been a goal of mine for years."
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.