Faculty Spotlight: New NRC Co-Director, Vanessa Hiratsuka

by Chynna Lockett  |   

Vanessa Hiratsuka posing by water

UAA’s National Resource Center on Alaska Native Elders (NRC) has new co-directors. Vanessa Hiratsuka from the Center for Human Development (CHD) and Britteny Howell from the Division of Population Health Sciences (DPHS) will support programs in Alaska that receive federal funding from the Administration for Community Living. NRC provides nutrition services, caregiving support, and elder abuse prevention programming to Alaska Native Elders around the state. Vanessa Hiratsuka shares her hopes for the center’s future. 

Name: Vanessa Hiratsuka

Email address: vyhiratsuka@alaska.edu

Title: Co-Director of Research and Evaluation; Assistant Professor, Co-Director of the National Resource Center for Alaska Native Elders

Unit:Center for Human Development 

Hometown: Stockton, CA

How long have you worked at UAA?

I have worked at UAA's Center for Human Development since March 2020. Dr. Howell and I assumed leadership as co-directors of the National Resource Center for Alaska Native Elders in July 2023.

Tell us about your job and what makes it unique.

As co-director of the NRC, I interface with the Administration for Community Living's Office for American Indians, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian Programs, Older Americans Act Title VI directors, and caregivers in tribal communities to provide training and technical assistance to enhance culturally appropriate knowledge and programs for Alaska Native elders. We are working to provide culturally grounded resources on dementia friendly communities, traditional foods, Elder abuse prevention, and long-term services and supports. We are also working with the Center for Human Development to develop an Alaska Native Elder ECHO training series.

What do you love the most about your work?

I feel very fortunate to continue to support tribal governments and their program staff in supporting Alaska Native Elders. Thanks to the leadership of past NRC directors, the center has a history of honoring the Elder wisdom, respecting the sovereignty of Alaska Native tribes, and centering Elders in all our work. We are continuing those efforts while shifting to directly support the Title VI programs serving Alaska Native Elders through resources and training.

What brought you to Alaska? 

My husband is originally from Alaska. When I was pregnant with our first child, we decided to move to the state for a year to be near his family and community. It's been over 23 years now; we never left! 

What was the biggest change about living in Alaska?

In rural, northern California, I knew the land. I had knowledge of traditional plants and animals in the area and could always tell the time based on the position of the sun in the sky. Moving to Alaska, I had to reorient myself as a guest on this land. There were some big differences. I arrived in Alaska in the summer and couldn’t tell time because the sun was always up. Blackberries are native to California, so I was very excited to forage for them here. When I found the blackberries on the tundra I realized they were not like California berries, it was a bait and switch! I’ve been learning about the land and letting the land know me as a guest here. 

What did you want to be when you grew up? 

There was a limited scope of career options in the rural areas I grew up in. People typically pursued either a service or one of a handful of professional jobs- being a teacher, doctor or military personnel. My father discouraged me from joining the military and I wasn’t drawn to teaching. So I chose to be a doctor and took classes in highschool to help me become one. I was really fortunate that the school had an excellent science program. The biotech class I had set the foundation for my career and I was offered an internship after graduation. I learned there were many more career opportunities available than what I knew of in my hometown. My first job was working on the Human Genome Project and as an intern, I was paid more per hour than anyone in my household. As a public health researcher, I still work in genetics, but as a social scientist. I am a bioethicist working with Indigenous communities to describe the legal, social, ethical and cultural implications of genomic research. It really speaks to the limitations and lack of opportunities many people face based on their location or upbringing and how something that seems as small as a course offering can bring awareness and access to new opportunities.

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