Elders connect RHS students to community, culture

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Several CITC employees graduated from the UAF Rural Human Services program this March. The graduation ceremony was held at CITC.

When you take a class, you expect to learn something — about a subject, about your field of study. But when students take courses through the Rural Human Services (RHS) Program offered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), they learn about themselves.

Put yourself first, first

“Before you can help somebody, you have to first identify those areas of healing that you have in your own life,” explained Timothy Johnson, a compliance and training coordinator with CITC’s Employment Services and Training Department.

That’s why the first sessions of the RHS program emphasize working on oneself — journaling, exploring personal experiences, addressing pain — before students turn their attention to topics like crisis intervention, community development, and counseling.

“So many people just want to help others,” Timothy pointed out. “But when you have someone who is traumatized and facing their own challenges, that may cause them to view things through a biased lens. The RHS program provides a place to step back and focus on those areas of hurt and pain, then resolve those and be who you need to be for the community.”

Emphasis on Native values

RHS is a two-year, 32-credit certificate program that was developed for Alaska village-based human service providers. Originally designed for rural residents who are natural helpers and healers in their communities, the program was made available to CITC employees through a professional development grant that created a partnership between CITC and UAF. Since the organization’s initial involvment, nearly 75 CITC employees have completed the program.

“I went through RHS, and it helped me in my personal life and in setting my educational foundation. I really liked the Elder presence in the classroom. This is such a good opportunity and one of my most memorable experiences in education.” – Kendra Hoffman, CITC Prevention Coordinator and RHS graduate

In addition to helping students develop an understanding and skills necessary for the effective delivery of rural counseling services, RHS places special emphasis on integration of Native values and principles. The program brings in teachers, healers, rural mental health workers, and — most importantly — Alaska Native Elders to lead classes and guide discussion.

“The main instructor would present a topic according to the university structure,” Timothy described. “Then as they integrate these typically Western learning models, the Elder comes in and describes, ‘Here’s how this translates to the Native community.’”

Led by Elders

Elders who lead the class place an emphasis on the good of the community and demonstrate to students how the growing they do within the program will enable them to help and relate to the individuals with whom they work later. The Elders also emphasize differences in communication styles.

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CITC employee Andrew Malavansky graduated from the Rural Human Services program this March. For his practicum, Andrew developed a blog that explores Native uses of Alaskan plants.

One thing Timothy learned from the Elders who guided his class was “the importance of the pause.”

“If you’re from a Western mind-frame, if you live in Anchorage, you assume everyone who comes here is in the same mind-frame,” he said. “But if you bombard someone with information, it can be overwhelming. You have to take time to set up a rapport, build a proper foundation before you can move on to getting them access to services.”

RHS has transformed how Timothy does his work: “I stopped seeing people as data thanks to this program. It also changed how I deliver information to and trained my case managers. We’re not in a rush, I tell them. Have a conversation with the people you serve. Take the time, do it properly, so they are equipped with the tools they need to pursue their future.”

Practical practicum

As part of their certification requirements, RHS students complete a practicum project like the one CITC Employment Specialist Andrew Malavansky worked on. Andrew graduated the RHS program this March, along with several other CITC employees.

Andrew Malavansky's blog uses videos, interviews, photos, and more to describe uses for Alaska's native plants.

Andrew Malavansky’s blog uses videos, interviews, photos, and more to describe uses for Alaska’s native plants. The blog was created as part of his required practicum for the Rural Human Services program.

“I wanted to learn more about traditional plants,” Andrew explained about his project, a blog called “Native Botanicals” that explores the medicinal, spiritual, traditional, and food uses of plants native to Alaska. “I also wanted to perpetuate that knowledge, get others interested, and get the younger generation more interested in it before it’s lost.”

Andrew combines tradition and technology to pass along the information he gathers. His blog features video interviews with Elders from villages all over the state. “I’m trying to get their viewpoints, how they use plants within their villages. Plants are a lot more widely used across the state than I thought, and there are a lot of experts out there.”

In addition to his blog, Andrew has set up an Alaska Botanicals Facebook page to generate conversation among his followers.

Like Timothy, Andrew completed the RHS program with an appreciation for what he learned from his Elder teachers.

“Growing up in my own community, Elders were respected and included in all of our ceremonies,” said Andrew, who is from St. George, Alaska. “They were always there, and they were kind of like an anchor. They set the ground rules, and you could count on them. The RHS program is very challenging, and the Elders help make it a wonderful learning experience that I’ll never forget.”