University offers acres of diamonds to those who seek

Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2003

Readers likely are familiar with Russell H. Conwell's "Acres of Diamonds" or some version of it.

The basic story line is this: An ancient Persian farmer was told a story of diamonds and their great value. After hearing the story, the farmer, who had previously thought of himself as wealthy and content, now considered himself a poor man and decided to go in search of some diamonds. His search led him far from his home and cost him everything. He never found a single diamond and died in poverty.

Meanwhile, the person who took over the diamond seeker's farm found "a black stone having an eye of light that reflected all the colors of the rainbow" in the sands of a shallow stream on the farm. He was unaware of the value of the stone until told it was a diamond. More diamonds were discovered.

In fact, the very place the first farmer had left to go in search of diamonds became the diamond mines of Golconda, "the most magnificent diamond mines in all the history of mankind," as Conwell describes them.

The moral, of course, is obvious: There are acres of diamonds right where we are, if we will just take a look.

University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton was on the Kenai Peninsula last week with an updated, Alaska version of the "Acres of Diamonds" story.

Hamilton's version goes something like this: Every year Alaskans wish hundreds upon hundreds of their high school graduates well as they send them off to seek their higher education, fame and fortune any place but Alaska.

The irony is the real opportunities for those young Alaskans their "acres of diamonds," if you will are right here in the state they are leaving behind, but the state is failing to show those young people where they can find their diamonds.

As they leave the state, those young people take with them a big part of Alaska's future, because with very few exceptions they don't return to make their homes and livelihoods here.

In a place where people talk ad nauseum about adding value to the state's resources, it is a travesty that Alaska invests millions upon millions of dollars in educating its young people only to export them to seek opportunity elsewhere often because they don't know about the opportunities that exist for them right where they are.

Alaska is dead last in the nation in the retention of its college-bound high school seniors, and losing the best and brightest is devastating to the economy of Alaska. In fact, Hamilton called it economic suicide. He's right.

Alaskans can talk all they want about resource development and economic diversification, but without the best and brightest young minds involved in the state's future, it's little more than talk. Hamilton makes a good case that the university system is the engine for economic development. If Alaska fails to nurture and grow that engine, the state's economy won't get far.

Hamilton even dared to take on Alaska's most sacred cow: the permanent fund dividend. It's not the promise of a check for $1,200 that will keep young Alaskans in the state (if that's the case, they really aren't worth keeping), it's the promise of opportunity.

And he asked a question all Alaskans must answer for themselves: As Alaska approaches the 50th anniversary of statehood in 2009 about 2,000 days away what are we willing to give up to build a golden Alaska, an Alaska where young people can follow the tracks of their dreams?

Hamilton has answered the question for himself. He's willing to give up permanent fund dividends and willing to pay any kind of tax to build the same kind of Alaska he discovered when he first arrived here in 1988. He even told legislators earlier this year he was willing to work for $1 if they would give the university another $10 million next year.

Hamilton is a true believer in Alaska and the University of Alaska. His passion is more than talk. The university is reaching out to show Alaska students the acres of diamonds right where they live. A few examples of those diamonds:

The Alaska Scholars Program in which the university offers $11,000 scholarships to all students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. What a great economic incentive to attend a University of Alaska campus.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks math-computer modeling program is one of the best in the world. It has won the title in competitive testing three times in the last 13 years and placed in the top five more times than any other university.

The University of Alaska Anchorage debate team. The team ranked first in the nation this year.

Unrivaled programs in biology and oceanography. And what better place to study those subjects than Alaska?

Opportunities to learn from the likes of Dr. Vernon Smith, this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in economics. Starting this month, the UAA campus will host Dr. Smith for a teaching stint.

It would be negligent not to add Kenai Peninsula College, which offers students of all ages opportunities to pursue their dreams. The faculty and staff here are known for their personal touch. The campuses in Soldotna and Homer are terrific community assets and resources.

All Alaskans need to look at the "acres of diamonds" we overlook in our own back yard, and we need to do better at showing them to the younger generation. As Hamilton so aptly noted, "Never underestimate the power of telling someone you want them."

Young Alaskans need to know the state not only wants them we desperately need them if we are to have any future at all.

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