Udall Scholar is passionate about Alaska Native children and American Indian welfare

by Catalina Myers  |   

Faith Itta, a UAA senior this fall pursuing a degree in social work was recently awarded the Udall Undergraduate Scholarship from the Udall Foundation. She is the second student at UAA to be awarded with the prestigious honor. (Photo courtesy, Faith Itta)

In 1992 Congress established the Udall Foundation in honor of the late Morris K. Udall, a democratic attorney who served as a representative from Arizona from 1961-1991. Udall was known for his leadership and lasting impact on the nation’s environment, public lands and natural resources, as well as his advocacy for supporting the rights and self-governance of Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Each year, the Udall Foundation awards $7,000 for their Udall Undergraduate Scholarship to college sophomores and juniors who demonstrate skills in leadership, public service or their commitment to Native American nations or the environment.

Faith Itta, a UAA student who will be a senior in the fall, pursuing a degree in social work, is the university’s second recipient to receive the prestigious honor from the Udall Foundation. Tracey Burke, a professor in UAA’s School of Social Work, and Fransisco Miranda, an associate professor of Spanish in the Department of Languages, nominated Itta for the award.

Itta grew up in Barrow, but her family originally hails from Shishmaref and she is currently living in Palmer.

“I wanted to stay in Alaska and chose UAA because it’s close to home,” said Itta. Additionally, Itta’s passion for social work was another reason to stay in Alaska. “Social work has such a big umbrella, but what I’m really interested in is Indian child welfare.” Itta’s first job was working at the local tribal office in Barrow in the social services department.

“I had the pleasure of scanning all their paper files, and as I was scanning each piece of paper, I realized that each family really needed a social worker. Someone skilled to handle the problems they were experiencing and that’s what drew me to child welfare.”

She said growing up in small-town Alaska, she saw firsthand the issues concentrated around the current welfare system and how that impacted child welfare. As she grew older and saw some of the damaging effects of the system, she realized that there was work still needing to be done and as she dug deeper, knew she’d found her calling. 

“That’s where my passion comes from and how I found social work,” she said. “It’s really exciting.”

Itta is currently fulfilling her practicum with the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council in their child welfare department. In addition to focusing on her studies and her practicum, Itta is the secretary for UAA’s Student Social Work Coalition, an Alaska Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) scholar, a project coordinator with the National Resource Center for Alaska Native Elders under the College of Health and is currently working on a research study regarding African American infant mortality under Ashley O’Connor, an assistant professor in UAA’s School of Social Work.

Itta said receiving the Udall Undergraduate Scholarship is a huge honor and was overwhelmed when she learned her professors had nominated her. The application process was rigorous and Itta said she almost gave up more than once. She said both Burke and Miranda supported her through the entire application process, helping her revise and perfect her essays. Her hard work paid off and Itta was awarded the scholarship under the category of tribal public policy. In addition to the scholarship money, recipients also receive a trip to Tucson, Arizona for a leadership-style retreat focusing on Alaska Native and Native American issues. Sadly, this year’s conference was moved to an online event due to the pandemic and although Itta is disappointed, she is still looking forward to attending. 

According to Itta, the most challenging part of applying for the scholarship was the essay portion, but she found inspiration from Morris Udall himself, who sponsored the first Indian Child Welfare Act, which is what she based her scholarship essay on.

“There are a significant number of Indian children in state custody,” said Itta. A National Indian Child Welfare Association 2017 report, states that nationwide, Alaska Native and American Indian children are placed in foster care at a rate 2.7 times greater than the general population. Itta said this statistic is reflected in our own state where Alaska Native children are more often removed from their families over accusations of children experiencing harm, and although there are cases in which children within Alaska Native homes experience harm, many misconceptions exist. Itta said studies have shown that Alaska Native and American Indian children, despite being removed from their parents and home, tend to thrive when they stay within the communities they are from. She hopes to change some of these misconceptions and eventually change an outdated system. “Keeping an Indian child in their community instead of relocating them really ties them with the land, the church and their peers.”

Itta said she thinks there needs to be more education among current child welfare workers on the Indian Child Welfare Act and that empathy needs to be built into that education. In addition, she said a better understanding of Alaska Native culture and community life and practices needs to happen.

Although Itta won’t be traveling to Tucson, she is still excited about the online conference and the opportunities and knowledge that will come from attending. She said she’s thinking about graduate schools already and getting ready to apply both in Alaska and out of state. 

“I think the biggest impact from this scholarship for me is empowerment,” said Itta. “On both my academic experience and professional career. It’s nice to be recognized for your hard work, that’s so important.”

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