Alaska is a place of breathtaking beauty and for some, heartbreaking everyday realities. It’s a place of extremes in weather, politics, wealth, and the human relationship with land and sea. Often romanticized as a spot where people can discover themselves and their place in the world, for some it is a place of hopelessness and even despair.
My husband and I spent a few years living in Alaska, and while our first daughter’s birth brought us back to the “lower 48,” we retain a love for this extraordinary place and the people who make it their home. While we were there, we learned that the state was badly in need of, among other things, high-quality mental health care, loving displays of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and well-equipped Native Alaskan people ready to lead with confidence.
Before we left, we were excited to witness the beginnings of a college designed to address all three of these needs, specifically among young people of Native Alaskan heritage. Alaska Christian College is part of the ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church, and I’m excited about what this school has accomplished in the 15 years since its birth. Because we can all use some encouraging news about God’s work in our world, I want to tell you about it.
Alaska Christian College exists “to prepare young people for whole-life discipleship.” Before its existence, the state had no Christian higher educational institution that specifically catered to Native Alaskan young people. There was no option for them to complete high school, then attend college with their Native peers in a Christian academic setting, unless they left the state. As you might imagine, for students living in Native Alaskan villages, leaving the state is an expensive proposition requiring a very difficult cultural transition—for most it seems impossible. ACC is a two-year college, assisting students by providing a transition from village Alaska into college, often sending students on to four-year universities. While the school recruits a diverse student body, the original focus remains on indigenous populations. Eighty to ninety percent of students come from rural Alaska and are Eskimo in ethnicity.
I interviewed Dr. Keith Hamilton, president of the school since its founding. Please read what he had to say and consider supporting this school through prayer, volunteer service (summertime in Alaska is awesome!), or financial gifts. Or simply be encouraged by God’s work through this unique school.
What do students find when they come to ACC?
We are a two-year accredited, AA-degree granting college with two degrees in Christian Ministry and Para-Professional Education. We offer development courses as the majority of our students arrive with low test scores and aptitudes for college-level work. We are heavily engaged in tutoring and student success services, with volunteer and part-time paid staff to equip them for college rigor. We are a holistic program that serves students not just academically, but socially, spiritually, and emotionally also. The right arm of ACC, the New Hope Counseling Center, addresses the emotional needs of every student free of charge. When students arrive, they find an extremely committed and caring, loving staff, a plethora of activities both social and academic, and a second chance at life, as most will come with heavy baggage from their past. We are a place of grace.
What makes a school like ACC important?
Post-high school students, without options like ACC, find themselves in deep trouble across our state, with very early teen pregnancy and the nation’s highest per-capita rates of alcohol addiction, sexual abuse, and suicide. Native people have lost some of their pride due to many reasons. Many will stay in their villages, unemployed, living on subsistence and welfare. We want to equip our graduates to follow and serve Christ within the Church and larger society.
What makes ACC different from other higher-education institutions in Alaska?
We have the largest percentage of Natives of any school; we are the only two-year Christian college committed to Alaskan Natives. We offer a two-to-one student-to-staff ratio, and we are owned by a very mission-minded evangelical denomination that has invested in Alaska since 1887—the Evangelical Covenant Church.
What do you offer students who come?
We have very nice accommodations for all ages and stages of life, for individuals or families. We are a residential campus with full food service and indoor and outdoor activities. We have a strong scholarship and grant program that enables the students to graduate with minimal debt. We invite them into our homes, our hearts, and many staff sacrifice personally to see that every student has a shot at faith in Christ and also a higher-education degree.
What has God done in and through the school that amazes you?
We have seen nearly 600 alumni now come through ACC. It amazes me that two-thirds of our budget is given by donors, churches, and outside groups who love Alaskan young people. We have gone from 1 building on 10.5 acres to now 15 buildings on 27 acres, with very little debt. It amazes me that so many workers come against the odds to serve in the Last Frontier. We are building a second dormitory now so we can have more than 110 students on our campus. This makes us now the largest Bible college in America serving any kind of Native student—that’s amazing!
Are you willing to share a specific story about a student’s success?
She was abused and silent about it. Her older brother had come to ACC and she saw the change in his life. She said, “I want that,” not knowing who that was—it was Jesus. She came to us as a freshman beaten, abused, and with her tail between her legs. Within a few months, she had a plan for taking her life. She had tried before at age 15, when the abuse was the worst.
We immediately got her professional help through the New Hope Counseling Center on our campus, and she was transferred to Anchorage. After three days, she returned to my office exclaiming that she had discovered that Jesus loved her! She had been failing all her classes up to that point, but she took a turn upwards and finished her first year near the top of her class. She finished the second year with us and had a dream—to continue at a four-year university in the lower 48.
Today she remains the only Native Alaskan female, in the history of the United States, to graduate from the US Naval Academy. What happened? Christ intersected her life because she needed a redeemer and Savior. ACC offered her all she needed to make that decision and then to grow in him rapidly as her education and discipleship offerings continued. She is an amazing woman of God today.
What impact will ACC have on Alaska and beyond in the future?
Sometime in the decades ahead, there will be a history lesson given and someone will ask, “What was it that affected positive change on bush Alaska since the early part of the 21st century?” I would like the response to say that it is the ministry of ACC, now passing 65 villages with alumni and almost 600 who have spent a semester or more as students.
Anything else you’d like to share?
We depend greatly on God’s people praying for us. Satan is real and steals our young people away from us at six times the national average due to preventable suicide. It needs to stop. Pray for protection for all of Alaska, but especially our Native population. Also, we depend heavily on God’s people to generously support this mission in the Last Frontier. We have great successes among great challenges. We always invite people to consider a generous gift to ACC or to include us in their will or trust giving. Thank you (quyana) for your support to see young Native students have hope and a future.
© 2016 Amy Simpson.