Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Michele Yatchmeneff, Unangax (Aleut) from Alaska’s Aleutian chain, is many things, but a stereotype is not one of them. Practicing a traditional subsistence lifestyle that is common throughout rural Alaska, Michele has a first-hand understanding of the challenges many Alaska Natives face when pursuing STEM education and careers. Luckily for Michele, her small-town roots didn’t stop her big dreams, and she is now the first female Alaska Native faculty member at the University of Alaska Anchorage College of Engineering.
In a previous Student Success Story, Michele shared how ANSEP helped her on her way to earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree from UAA and eventually a doctorate degree in engineering from Purdue University. She realized that not everyone knew about and was able to take advantage of these opportunities like she did, though. Michele knew that Alaska Natives were significantly underrepresented in STEM professions because remote areas of Alaska often provide limited access to education. After conducting more research, she discovered that access wasn’t the only factor.
“I found that, in addition to academic college readiness, ANSEP provides a sense of community and emotional support that prepares students for higher education,” said Michele. “A leading factor in Alaska Natives pursuing STEM degrees is feeling a sense of belonging and acceptance.”
Michele set out on a mission to better understand the factors affecting students’ sense of belonging in a STEM environment and how best to encourage students and teachers to create a positive, encouraging environment where they can thrive.
“Many students and professors in my Ph.D. program treated me like a minority quota instead of a deserving candidate,” said Michele. “From there, I became incredibly passionate about finding a better way to help other Alaska Native students succeed in STEM education.”
Her hard work has not gone unnoticed. Michele was recently handpicked by the National Science Foundation to receive the organization’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Grant first for the UAA College of Engineering and again as a faculty member. The five-year, $500,000 grant will support research to determine the factors that lead to a sense of belonging in minority students pursuing STEM education.
Like many ANSEP students and alumni, Michele understands the added challenge presented by being away from home and just how overwhelming that can be. To put it into perspective, for many students from rural Alaska, there are more people at the university than in their entire village. As ANSEP has expanded, the program has introduced components like Acceleration Academy and then Middle School Academy to give students the experience of college life and exposure to STEM education from as early an age as possible.
“ANSEP creates a sense of community and honors our native cultures and traditions. That feeling of comfort and respect empowers students to excel and feel confident in any environment,” said Michele. “ANSEP helped me achieve my dreams and I hope I’m inspiring the next generation of STEM leaders, too!”