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Hooding ceremony student speaker Naidene Baechler on pursuing systemic change

by Matt Jardin  |   

Hooding ceremony student speaker Naidene Baechler
Program supervisor for Knik Tribal Council’s new behavioral health program and Arctic Indigenous Scholar honoree Naidene Baechler, M.S.W. Social Work ’20, is UAA’s graduate degree hooding ceremony student speaker for fall 2020. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Even amidst a global pandemic slowdown, it’s been a productive year for Naidene Baechler. She will serve as the speaker for this fall’s graduate hooding ceremony after completing her Master of Social Work in May 2020. Merely one week after earning her degree, Baechler kicked off her career as program supervisor for the Knik Tribal Council (KTC).

In April, the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States named Baechler as one of its three Arctic Indigenous Scholars for 2020. Selected by a seven-member committee, the honor is awarded to individuals whose work exemplifies social, political and environmental issues important in their communities. The designation includes a trip to Washington, D.C. to speak with policymakers on those issues, which has been delayed this year due to COVID-19.

Baechler’s focus is twofold: to resolve the high rates of suicide among the Alaska Native community and the increased number of missing and murdered Indigenous women through educational and economic equity.

“Systemic changes that need to happen such as having mental health be part of the curriculum can start addressing the here and now,” said Baechler. “Policies that make sure there's equity in education can shorten the economic gap, especially in rural Alaska with higher suicide rates, which may be a key factor in those rates. So my focus has been looking at how we change and advocate on a policy level because that's where it's going to have a standing impact.”

Originally working at KTC as an intern — one of two internships required as part of UAA’s M.S.W. curriculum — Baechler’s current position as program supervisor allows her to tackle those issues head-on by building the organization’s new behavioral health program from the ground up. 

Part of a six-person team, Baechler’s role has been to understand the ins and outs of Medicaid, state and federal regulations, and to develop the program’s policies and procedures in adherence to those regulations. 

"I'm very thankful that the M.S.W. program solidified my desire to stay curious and to seek solutions when challenging situations arise,” she said. “The coursework and professors really helped refine those skills which I am now able to utilize in my current position."

Born in Newhalen, Alaska where her mother is from, and raised in Nevis, Minnesota where her father is from, Baechler describes having always felt a need to help others. 

That feeling grew to become a calling thanks to two formative experiences. The first being the realization that her mother was able to provide Christmas presents to Baechler and her siblings thanks to a charitable gift donation program. The second is seeing all the assistance her father received to take care of her ailing grandfather.

“As I grew older, I recognized the people and systems in place that allowed my mom to provide Christmas presents for us. That memory has always driven me to want to help people,” said Baechler. “And there was also the hospice care that came in to help my dad take care of my grandpa. Seeing their warmth and empathy inspired me to continue to want to help people in whatever way possible.”

Originally wanting to help others as a teacher, Baechler earned her Bachelor of Arts in human services from the University of Minnesota Morris in 2008 before returning to Newhalen to take a position with the school district while working to earn her master’s degree in special education through the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

After moving to Wasilla, Baechler missed the hands-on approach afforded by being in a rural classroom. Taking a step back to reevaluate her career, she keyed in on the aspects of her job that overlapped with social work as something she wanted to expand, leading her to UAA’s M.S.W. program. 

Whether it’s special education or social work, for Baechler the goal is still the same, pointing to her seven-year-old son Zachary and four-year-old daughter Aria as inspiration. 

“Ultimately, I pursue education and change because I want something better for my children, for Alaska Natives and people in general — I want to help improve the well-being of others.”

 

Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

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