Rural Alaskans learn to live healthy while getting first taste of college

January 31, 2011 2 Comments

Students from the first Rural Nutrition Services group at The University of Alaska Fairbanks.
(Courtesy of Sarah McConnell)


For some Native students in Alaska, the gateway to higher education starts with nutrition.

The Troth Yeddha' Nutrition Project, a Rural Nutrition Services program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, gives students an opportunity to learn healthy eating and lifestyles while also offering useable college curriculum.

"Our program affords an opportunity to experience college. To say, 'Wow, I'm interested in this,' " Sarah McConnell, program manager/faculty, said.

The program, funded by a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant, started September 2008. Ms. McConnell said the idea of the Troth Yeddha' Nutrition Project was to create entry points to nutritional science education through a curriculum that was culturally relevant and included information about traditional foods and customary Alaskan Native foods. In turn, the goal is to build the capacity of rural residents that will both enter the educational field of nutritional science, but also to become outreach agents in their own communities.

The program, located on the Interior-Aleutians Campus, is approximately 90 percent Alaska Native or Native American, Ms. McConnell said. She said 45 communities in Alaska don't have access to a household computer or Internet, so most of the course is taught through weekly audio conferences during the semester.

At the beginning of the semester, there is a week-long "intensive" session when the students are flown in from remote areas. Each day, they learn curriculum and prepare three healthy, traditional meals to eat while on campus. The program often uses Tanka Bars as part of the curriculum.

"One of the really good things is that people who live in rural Alaska don't need to move away from their homes in order to take these classes," Ms. McConnell said. "We don't have much final exam-type agendas, but the students share and show that they know it. They have to get in front of the group and show what they learned."

Historical meaning

That whole idea of sharing information is how the Troth Yeddha' Nutrition Project got its start. The University of Alaska Fairbanks sits on land once called Troth Yeddha', which was named by the Tanana Athabascans. The word troth refers to the highly valued plant known in English as "Indian potato" or "wild potato" and the word yeddha' means "its ridge" or "its hill."

Athabascan Elder Howard Luke described how Alaska Natives from the Interior used to come together to harvest troth and, in the process, they would share their challenges and exchange ideas about how to do things better or how to solve a problem, Ms. McConnell said.

"They brought back useful ideas and skills to their villages from what they learned from each other. That's kind of where we took our model, but I think that's the thing I admire the most about our students," she said. "They come together in Fairbanks and learn skills and information that is useful for them. Then they share that with their community, and then, members of the community make their own contribution."

Classroom benefits

Students in the program often report back that they are not only losing weight during the project, but also improving their health. Ms. McConnell said that although she can't guarantee any health benefits from the course, she has witnessed almost everyone who has gone through it has had some health benefits.

"One of the things I hear most often is, 'I've lost inches off my waist,' and messages on my answer machine that say, 'I just saw the dietitian and my blood pressure is the best it's been in years,' or, 'I got my diabetes under control for the first time ever," she said.

A team, including professionals trained in behavioral health, nutrition science, and outreach skills, join with Alaska Native Elders to teach each class. Students in the Troth Yeddha' Nutrition Project have to complete a practicum in which they take what they've learned and incorporate it into their community -- whether it's teaching healthier nutrition to elders, reaching out to the homeless population or starting physical activity groups focused on motivating people to be active even though Alaska temperatures drop below 30 degrees.

Students may use the courses toward the Rural Nutrition Services Occupational Endorsement; their area of concentration in Tribal Management (including practicum); certificate and degree programs including the Associate of Science and building a foundation for the Bachelor of Nutrition degree; and/or as professional development, including the School Nutrition Association.

Classes have already started with the "intensive" portion of the program beginning today, Jan. 31.

"Our courses give students a taste of college, helps them experience success and learn what they need to work harder on and discover what they are good at. And they develop a passion for health, nutrition and community service," Ms. McConnell said. "It's really exciting to hear students, after taking our courses, say that they are interested in going on and ask what other classes to take. They are making decisions about continuing their education and improving their health."

For more information, visit the University of Alaska Fairbanks website

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