The next generation: a legacy of ANSEP and UAA

by Catalina Myers  |   

UAA double major in mathematics and civil engineering, Katherine Sakeagak has a family legacy of UAA graduates. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

 Since Katherine Sakeagak was a baby, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP) and UAA’s campus have felt like home. In fact, there is a photo of Sakeagak’s father, Willie, holding her as a wide-eyed baby while celebrating one of ANSEP’s earliest student cohorts.

Both of Sakeagak’s parents graduated from UAA, her father with a B.S. in civil engineering and her mother, Elia Nay, formerly Sakeagak, with a B.B.A. in management and a minor in economics. Nay now lives in Kotzebue working for NANA Regional Corporation as an external affairs manager.

Growing up, Nay said education was a value instilled in her early on and attending one of the state’s universities was a goal she strove to achieve. In her teens Nay moved from the North Slope to Southcentral, living in both Wasilla and Anchorage to attend ANSEP, which is what first introduced her to UAA. For Nay, attending UAA was the right choice, it allowed her to pursue her educational goals, while also being close to family. 

In early 2000, Katherine was born and a few years later, Nay had her second child. Being a new mom, she decided to hit pause on her studies and focus on her young children, but she always knew that at some point she would return to UAA to finish the job she’d started. She believes those early years of her daughter's life, watching her study for exams, attend classes and finally earning a degree impacted Katherine and helped shape her aspirations to attend university one day.

“From an early age I instilled in her the importance of going to school,” said Nay. “She saw the work that I had to put in to succeed and I think her watching me work hard through college to complete a degree might have contributed to her self-motivation.” Nay said she never worried about her daughter’s academic success, saying that throughout elementary and high school, Katherine was eager to learn. She’s excited to see the career opportunities open up as she continues to flourish in her engineering classes and through ANSEP. She said she’s grateful for a program that encourages STEM education at such an early age and knows that wherever her daughter lands, she will make her family and people proud.

Now an ANSEP and UAA student herself, Sakeagak is pursuing a double major in mathematics and civil engineering. Sakeagak reflects and echoes her mother’s sentiments, saying that watching her parents put in the long hours to earn their degrees while also raising a family inspired her to reach for her own academic success. 

“I started becoming a part of ANSEP as soon as I was born because my dad was a part of the program,” said Sakeagak. She comes from a long line of UAA graduates, as many of her family members have either gone through the ANSEP program or attended UAA, and currently, her uncle, Nay’s younger brother, is pursuing a degree in civil engineering. She said they cross paths often and even have some of the same classes together.

“It’s kind of nice to have family here,” Sakeagak said. She’s now working on recruiting her younger brother to join ANSEP. “When I was born, my parents were still in college, so it took both of them a little longer to complete college, but I was able to see the work he [her father] did and I guess that inspired me.”

Since joining ANSEP in middle school, Sakeagak always loved solving problems. Through her program’s guidance, she’s realized the career possibilities her math-savvy skills provide and earned internship opportunities with ConocoPhillips and an undergraduate research appointment with Dr. Erin Hicks, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“ANSEP helps students who are not in college experience what it’s like to be in an educational community,” Sakeagak said. “It’s important to start students in this early — even if they’re not going toward an engineering or STEM background, it’s still beneficial.”

A statement her mother whole-heartedly agrees with. Although Nay herself went through the ANSEP program, she ended up in a different degree field and industry but said that she is grateful for the opportunities the program afforded her and now her daughter.

“I feel very grateful for the opportunities that she has as a young Iñupiat woman,” Nay said.

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