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UAF Yugtun occupational endorsement certificate gives high school students in the Y-K Delta a head start

UAF Kuskokwim Campus in Bethel, Alaska.

Among Alaska native languages, Central Yup’ik, or Yugtun, has the most speakers. But there are reportedly fewer than 10,000 people who are highly proficient. Keeping the language alive ultimately comes down to the younger generations, and a new certificate offered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks may be able to help them along that journey.

As the UAF Kuskokwim Campus success coordinator, Nicholai Joekay spends much of his time focusing on the university’s dual enrollment efforts, helping high school students earn college credits. Now those college credits can be applied to a Yup’ik language occupational endorsement certificate to help meet real demand.

“We recognize that within the workforce here in Bethel and in the region, organizations like [Association of Village Council Presidents], [Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation] are always looking for Yup’ik language interpreters,” Joekay said.

The certificate was created in partnership with the Lower Kuskokwim School District. Students can take these courses and get an occupational endorsement. The credits can then can be applied toward an associate’s and eventually a bachelor’s degree in Yugtun.

Sheila Wallace created the curriculum and the program in Yugtun.

“There's, you know, language attrition that's happening everywhere in the state of Alaska. And we see it in our communities,” Wallace said.

Wallace teaches three separate Yugtun sections to high school students covering grammar, composition, reading, and writing.

“Of course Yugtun composition is writing. So that's probably the hardest,” Wallace said. “I do have students in that class that have to write MLA style research papers all in Yugtun.”

Wallace is the only one teaching the courses at the high school level. Her courses serve villages far and wide, including Kwigillingok, Kongiganak, Chefornak, Napaskiak, and Mertarvik.

The courses that Wallace offers can be applied toward more than just a certificate in the Yup’ik language.

“All of these courses that we require for the occupational endorsement also can qualify for the language portion of the Alaska performance scholarship,” Wallace said.

They can additionally count toward the Alaska Seal of Biliteracy, which is included on high school students’ transcripts and diplomas.

Joekay said that this is all just one part of a broader strategy to preserve language through educational opportunities.

“I think that this is going to be something that only gets better and better as the years go on,” Joekay said.

This spring, three high school students in the Y-K Delta became the first to receive their Yup’ik occupational endorsement certificates.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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