B.A. Psychology ’02, M.S.W. ’08
Hometown: Homer, Alaska
Fun Fact: Has helped her mom rescue and rehabilitate abused and injured turtles.
Chelsa Smith was one of the first UAA students to call East Hall home. “They put me on the ‘healthy living’ floor along with the entire men’s basketball team,” she says. “It was great!” In fact, she mentions there’s a chance her name might still be carved in the tippy top corner of a closet in her old dorm room. She’s not sure how it got there, but if anyone finds it, she’d like them to know that she is now an upstanding alumna of UAA’s undergraduate psychology program and the School of Social Work master’s program, as well as a donor to UAA’s alumni scholarship fund. And she’s looking forward to her annual call from the fundraising phonathon students.
So just how did she exemplify healthy living as a student resident? “Well, my roommate was on the women’s basketball team and after gorging ourselves in the cafeteria, I’d hop on her back and make her carry me up the stairs,” she says with a smile. “You know, for conditioning; we lived on the third floor.”
Chelsa is modest about her own athletic achievements, but she certainly has carried an impressive legacy forward from her days on the healthy living floor. She plays softball and soccer, swims, kayaks, runs and goes on long hikes with her faithful friend Kaia, a small black mixed-breed dog whose accomplishments include conquering Crow Pass in a single day (that’s 26.2 miles on very short legs). Chelsa has also spearheaded several health initiatives at the Southcentral Foundation where she’s worked for the last nine years. “I formed a trek team my first year there and trained about a dozen people for a marathon,” she says. This year she’s helped to organize a team to trek across America. Figuratively. Participants pool their exercise miles and minutes every day in a bid to tackle the 3,000+ miles of an American coast-to-coast endeavor. “It’s great for team building and morale.”
Her interest in health and wellness also played a part in her choice of major at UAA as an undergraduate. “I started off as a culinary arts major, then switched to math before I finally settled on psychology,” she says. It was her Introduction to Psychology class with Claudia Lampman that helped her make that decision. “She made psychology seem totally approachable, totally engaging. It struck a chord with me,” she says.
Shortly after graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 2002, Chelsa went to work at one of Southcentral Foundation’s residential centers for youth. After awhile she made the decision to go back to school, this time for a master’s degree in social work. She opted for UAA’s School of Social Work because she knew she could collaborate with professors and tailor her education to fit the behavioral health needs specific to Alaska. Her goal? To be better equipped to address the behavioral health needs she was encountering every day. An advanced degree in her field would let her take on some of the leadership roles that interested her while still allowing her to work one-on-one with people every day.
Upon graduation with her master’s degree in 2008, she became a clinician for Southcentral Foundation (SCF), where they quickly recognized her leadership potential.
“While I was working toward my master’s degree at UAA, I concurrently earned a post-graduate certificate in social work management,” she says. That leadership training has served her well in her current role as clinical supervisor for behavioral health at SCF. “Those were some of the most important courses I took. Chad Morse was a remarkable professor.”
Her proudest professional achievement of late has been a pilot program to reduce her clinicians’ caseloads to allow for more streamlined management and a better quality of care for the customer-owners accessing care through Southcentral Foundation. “We are an Alaska Native-owned nonprofit of Alaska Natives serving Alaska Natives, so we refer to our clients as customer-owners,” Chelsa explains.
Chelsa is proud of her own Aleut heritage through her mother’s side of the family. Though Homer and Kachemak Bay, home for Chelsa, are billed as “The Halibut Capital of the World,” Chelsa remembers her house as salmon-centric, with a garage full of curing salmon jerky and a kitchen full of culinary talent. She spent a lot of her childhood in the kitchen beside two professional cooks—her parents. Although her dad makes “the best ice cream you’ve ever tasted—seriously, it’s heaven in a bowl,” her mother is responsible for Chelsa’s favorite recipe. “It’s called perok and everyone has their own version,” she says, though, in a show of family pride, her shrug indicates that other versions might not measure up. Their version of the savory Aleut-Russian salmon pie dish involves rice, fresh salmon, turkey bacon, eggs, cabbage, turnips and carrots all layered between two pastry crusts. And it’s a labor of love. “It usually takes seven hours to make.” But not nearly that long to eat it, especially if you share it with a few friends.
So what does the future hold for Chelsa Smith, L.C.S.W., runner, hiker, future Olympic swimmer (a “reasonable” goal, she says), second-generation culinary genius and UAA alum?
“I want to stay where I am as long as I continue to find it challenging,” she says. “I could also see myself in a teaching role.”
We’d like her to teach us some of those family recipes. We respect all manner of educational aspirations, but who doesn’t have time to learn how to make “heaven in a bowl”?