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For newly minted Iñupiaq doctoral graduate, opening doors for more Native scholars remains vital

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The process of earning a doctorate takes a lot of time and work. And for one Iñupiaq woman  hearing the words doctor next to her name was pretty emotional.  Her response to passing her dissertation defense went viral this month after hundreds of thousands of people saw her reaction.

In a video Twitter post, Cana Uluak Itchuaqiyaq recorded herself getting the news that she’d passed her doctoral program at Utah State University.

She covered up her face as she cried tears of joy when she was told she was the first person in the program to be passed with distinction. As emotional as the moment was in general, Itchuaqiyaq says she was personally touched by hearing how her name was presented.

“Hearing ‘Dr.’ with a wholly Iñupiaq name was pretty overwhelming,” Itchuaqiyaq said.

Her doctorate is in technical writing and rhetoric. She says her focus has been in how using more traditional storytelling can inform how people communicate in more Western-focused academia.

“Using story is an incredibly effective way to communicate the stakes of an issue,” Itchuaqiyaq said. “Especially issues that affect populations or communities that are disenfranchised or that are marginalized in some way.”

Itchuaqiyaq says for the most part, academics and research institutions rely on more quantitative data in their work, often discounting personal experiences or stories. 

“People will say, when you use story for example, they will say that’s anecdotal evidence,” Itchuaqiyaq said. “And I argue that is lived experience from people who are experts in that experience describing that.”

She gave an example of Iñupiaq hunters travelling on sea ice to catch seals. She says often people will ask what the trail was like, and a hunter could respond by describing how their eyelashes froze, or how ice was sturdier on the snowmachine trip out, but began to break up under the weight of the snowmachine and a freshly caught seal. 

“They might use an anecdote or some kind of phrase to describe the weather. What they’re really saying is it’s between this temperature range.”

Born in Kotzebue, Itchuaqiyaq spent most of her childhood traveling back and forth between Anchorage and the Northwest Arctic. Her parents divorced when she was very young, but both were in her life growing up.

Her journey through college wasn’t conventional by most metrics. Out of high school, she went to UC Berkeley. But at that point in her life,  she wasn’t ready for college, and didn’t finish her degree there. 

She and her husband at the time had two children early in her 20s, and moved to Boston where he was studying. She took night classes at Harvard, but she says she struggled with substance use toward the end of her last year. 

She eventually entered a mental health facility. 

“I didn’t graduate,” Itchuaqiyaq said. “I lived instead. And I’m really proud of that choice that I made to value my own life and get help. I’m grateful that I did that.”

A year later, she graduated with honors in 2006, and continued her education with a masters in communication from Idaho State University before entering her doctoral program. 

Itchuaqiyaq says she’s remained sober since being admitted, though she still made sacrifices moving forward. That included being apart from her kids as she went to school in Utah, and continuing to work on confronting trauma from her own youth. 

At the end of it all, Itchuaqiyaq says her work has been worth it. 

“I’m going to be a professor at Virginia Tech. Wow!” she laughed. “It’s hard to believe for me. I was a drug addict, almost died from my drug addiction. I was this traumatized kid from the NANA region. Literally.”

Itchuaqiyaq talks openly about her experiences with trauma and substance use. She says in relating her personal experiences, she wants to show that they don’t define a person, and someone can experience them and still be successful.

“It takes a lot of work, and a lot of support from others,” Itchuaqiyaq said. “But if you are stuck in some of these cycles. There’s hope for you.”

Dr. Uluak Itchuaqiyaq says that in recent years, there has been a wave of Alaska Native success stories in higher education and doctoral research, and she’s hopeful that both her work and her story will help the wave grow even larger.