School can be tough. College can be tougher. After dropping out of college just after his first year on the east coast, Matt Calhoun will be the first to tell you he never imagined he would become an engineer, let alone a university professor.
Matt is Athabaskan Indian with family ties in Holy Cross and Takotna, Alaska. He grew up in Homer and moved to Anchorage his sophomore year for a chance at better schooling. In 1998, he graduated from Dimond High School and decided that joining the U.S. Coast Guard was his best shot at earning a degree – it was affordable and, at the time, he had no other way to pay for school.
Matt still remembers how uncomfortable he felt as he struggled to fit in, “It was a miserable experience. I showed up and was immediately thrown into boot camp, then bossed around. One year was enough for me to realize it wasn’t the right fit for me.”
From there, Matt found himself feeling unsure of what was in store for his future. That was until 1999, when Matt met Dr. Herb Ilisaurri Schroeder, just four short years after Herb founded the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP).
“I was speaking with a woman at UAA’s Native Student Services to see what scholarships were available to me,” Matt explained. “She told me I needed to meet Herb Schroeder. I walked out of her office and he just happened to be standing right there. The rest was history. It was a moment that changed my life forever.”
Herb is the founder and vice provost of ANSEP. From the beginning, his goal was to provide students across Alaska the tools needed to earn science and engineering degrees, ultimately putting them on the path to leadership in STEM career fields.
“I saw a strong potential in Matt,” said Herb. “When Matt told me he had an interest in engineering, I knew he was the perfect fit for ANSEP. Students like Matt are the reason ANSEP exists. He came from a background with limited means, and our program offered him a chance to excel.”
Matt soon found himself immersed in college life and afterschool studies with his ANSEP peers. During the summer, he completed internships with a handful of companies, including Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, VECO Corporation and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
As an upperclassman, Matt led recitation sessions for freshman and sophomore students, helping them with their math and science studies. Before he knew it, Matt was graduating with his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) – one of the first ANSEP students to do so.
But, Matt couldn’t stay away. After graduating and getting three years of engineering experience under his belt, Matt returned to work with ANSEP as regional director in 2006 where he recruited, motivated and empowered Alaska students to pursue science and engineering degrees, just as Herb did for him.
“I had so much fun building computers with high school students and teaching them everything I knew. Herb eventually got me teaching an Introduction to Engineering course, and I loved it,” Matt explained. “I truly believe Alaska needs more homegrown scientists and engineers, and I want to be part of that. I think that is key to having a voice in the future projects and research that happen within our state.”
With Herb’s guidance, Matt changed his direction and enrolled in graduate school, with the goal of one day returning to UAA to become a professor. In 2010, Matt graduated with his Master of Science in civil engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder and went on to earn his Ph.D. in civil engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This fall, Matt, along with fellow ANSEP student Michele Yatchmeneff, will make history as the first Alaska Native engineering professors at UAA.
Matt and Michele are among 146 ANSEP scholarship recipients who have graduated from the University of Alaska with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. According to Matt, ANSEP was essential to his academic success.
“UAA is definitely the only university I wanted to come back to after earning my Ph.D. I want to be part of ANSEP and encourage students like me to earn their degrees,” said Matt. “There were definitely hard times – times when I wanted to quit – but I knew I had to keep my determination. Herb was a big part of pushing me as well as having encouragement from other ANSEP students.”
A true ANSEP success, Matt is now a tenure-track faculty member at UAA and begins teaching his first class, Properties of Materials, on Monday, Aug. 24.
“I am most looking forward to teaching a course that incorporates team building with the material. Many of my instructors did not do this, which I believe is a disservice to the student because all engineering projects require teamwork.”
For now, Matt is enjoying the bliss of becoming a professor as he always dreamed of, and sharing it with his wife and two children. Matt’s advice for students like him is to never give up.
“Failure is not an option. There will definitely be tough times, but the important thing is to keep pushing, stay involved and learn from your peers – they are all going through the same thing as you.”