A rural Alaska educator has received a big honor from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Kuskokwim Campus UAF associate professor Diane McEachern is the first rural recipient of the Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching Award, which she won for her cross-cultural teaching style.
McEachern has spent 15 years trying to figure out how to best serve her students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kuskokwim Campus in Bethel, most of whom are Alaska Native. McEachern will be the first to tell you that learning how to teach her Alaska Native students was uncomfortable at first, especially as a white woman who didn’t grow up in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Her students are not typical teenagers who just graduated high school and stumble into college as the next stage of growing up. McEachern’s students will snowmachine many miles from one village to the next just to catch a flight to get to school. These students tell her that they are going to school to save their people.
"I have to say, when a student says they are, and then as faculty you look at your syllabus and your learning objectives and you're like, 'Huh, I didn’t put that down here,'" McEachern said.
McEachern teaches rural human services, and got her start in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta as a social worker. She was first employed as a social worker for the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Kwethluk and then Bethel, before becoming a teacher at KuC 15 years ago.
Her first year, McEachern had to learn how to teach under the gaze of Elders, which she was not used to. Two Elders usually sit in her class as she teaches.
"Nobody else was bothered, but I was and I had to unpack that. And part of that was that I thought I should be in control of the classroom; I thought we should follow my syllabus perfectly," McEachern said.
But by the end of her first year, she felt something change. One day, the two Elders were out for doctor's appointments, and she felt anxious while teaching the class. Later that afternoon, she was teaching with her class in a horseshoe facing her.
"I see in the back the two Elders are entering the room after lunch, and they come walk up and usually sat next to me. And as they walked up, for a split second, I felt a visceral sense of relief, like 'Ah. Okay, good. They are here,'" McEachern said.
She said that she figured out that everything that needs to be learned will be learned, just maybe not the way she had scheduled it.
Yup’ik Elder Esther Green, who has sat in McEachern’s classes, accompanied her to Fairbanks to receive her award.
"It’s set up very nicely, these big tables, these glass flower vases on these tables, and all the tables are set and it’s very beautiful and Esther felt she was a tourist. She said, 'Oh I’m a tourist!'” McEachern said.
Linda Curda is the acting campus director and nominated McEachern for the award. Curda says that McEachern's dedication toward suicide prevention and research was another reason for her nomination.
"Through that whole experience in teaching, she also had incredible service with the community," Curda said.
But for McEachern, the award is more about her students and how they taught her to be a better teacher.
"As long as I am in a position like this I will always have to ask myself difficult questions, listen to difficult conversations, and engage in challenging dialogue," McEachern said.
McEachern will receive a $10,000 cash prize with the award. The money comes from a $750,000 endowment fund from the Usibelli Coal Mine.
Diane McEachern also co-hosts KYUK's Friday morning talk show, Talkline.