Jessica Hunt’s academic path starts and ends in her hometown of Emmonak. She grew up in the Yup’ik community near the mouth of the Yukon River and—after studying at UAA, UAF and UAS—she’s returned to stay as Emmonak’s high school math teacher.
The village, 10 miles from the Arctic coast, is home to about 800 residents. The high school typically hosts between 40 and 50 students, freshmen through senior year, and Jessica teaches every one.
As a member of the community, she connects with her students in location, lifestyle and culture. And as a math teacher, she connects with her students on an educational level, too, able to guide them to learning opportunities across the state.
Opportunities, for example, like the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI).
A program of UAF’s College of Rural and Community Development, RAHI invites high-achieving Alaska high school students to experience college, living in UAF residence halls and taking college-level courses. In just six intensive weeks each summer, high school juniors and seniors can earn eight to 10 college credits. More importantly, they gain a better perspective on how education will fit their future.
Though Jessica knew she wanted to be a math teacher early on, she credits RAHI for further inspiration. “I had an exceptional math teacher, Gregory Owens,” she said (Owens is RAHI’s academic coordinator today). “He was able to explain math to me so that I felt like I completely understood it, and that I enjoyed it.”
After graduating from Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Jessica already had a jump start on her college degree. She first enrolled at UAF, later transferring to UAA to be nearer to her brother and his young family in Palmer.
At both universities, she participated in the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP), an academic learning community for STEM majors (science, technology, engineering and math). She completed ANSEP internships back in Fairbanks, joining RAHI as a math tutor for one summer, and returning another year as a math researcher to study bore waves under the direction of Dr. Alexei Rykbin. Throughout college, she tutored fellow students in math at both UAF and UAA.
Jessica graduated from UAA in 2011, with a degree in mathematics and a minor in Alaska Native studies, and returned to Emmonak to start graduate school (UAS, based in Juneau, offers a low-residency 11-month master’s degree for secondary education. Much like RAHI, students convene for a six-week summer session in Juneau.)
Her first teaching job was in Nunam Iqua, a sister village less than 20 miles from Emmonak, before joining the staff at her hometown school in 2015.
Jessica now teaches all math classes for Emmonak’s high school students—geometry, algebra 2, whatever each student needs next. In addition, she coaches the girl’s basketball team, and co-coaches the school’s academic decathlon team.
Coming from the community and returning to teach, she feels especially capable in her role.
“I want to make an impact on the young people here, not just here in Emmonak but here in the district,” she said.
“I feel like, since I grew up here, I can communicate better with people who are from here,” she noted. “And if I can communicate better, I feel like I can teach better.” Students, she said, are able to open up to her about challenges and concerns more so than they would with a teacher from Outside.
That makes her more than just an educator. “It’s nice to know they can connect to me not just on a level of teacher-student, but on a community level,” she added.
And, in return, she gets just as much back from the community. The oldest of her three kids just started kindergarten at Emmonak School this year, and that connection to home is important.
“I want my kids to grow up here,” she said. “I want them to know their family members. I want them to know this lifestyle. I want them to be able to have their first dance here.”
After traveling through the three big cities of Alaska for her education, Jessica is right back where she started, and exactly where she wants to be. Teaching math was the goal, raising a family in her community was her focus, and now, thanks to her college education, she’s able to achieve both through her career.
What does that mean for her?
“It’s really everything that I dreamed of.”
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement