Profiles of Our Graduates

woman poses in front of windmills
Photo from FDNM

Rural development alumni Julia Hnilicka was appointed as the USDA State Director, Rural Development for Alaska by President Joe Biden in 2022.



'Wáahlaal Gidáak - Barbara Blake, B.A. RD 2010, M.A. RD 2013

Barbara BlakeBarbara Blake currently serves as Senior Advisor to the Lt. Governor of the State of Alaska. 'Wáahlaal Gidáak (Barbara) is of Haida, Tlingit and Ahtna Athabascan descent and belongs to the Káat nay-st/Yahkw ’Láanaas (Shark House/Middle Town People). She is the mother of an inspiring young man, Nathaniel Blake. She received her Master’s degree from UAF in Rural Development focusing her thesis on Fisheries Development in Rural Alaska. She received her undergraduate degree(s) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a BA in Rural Economic Development and an AA in Tribal Management. She holds a certificate in Tribal Governmental Business Law from Seattle University. She formerly served as Government Affairs Liaison for The Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and also Assistant Professor for the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In addition, Barbara has worked as the Technical Assistant Specialist for Intertribal Agriculture Council and Program Assistant in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Office of Tribal Relations. She has held internships/fellowships as an Obama Organizing Fellow; First Alaskans Institute Public Policy Legislative Fellow; Washington Internship for Native Students Intern; Sealaska Corporation; Alyeska Pipeline; and Ahtna Incorporated. She also served as Board Youth Advisor for Sealaska Corporation. She is a member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, Native Emerging Leaders Forum, Polynesian Voyage Society and the Heinyaa Kwaan Dancers.


Tyrell Jones, B.A. RD 2018

Terrell JonesMy name is Terrell Jones, I am Iñupiaq from Deering. My grandparents are Mildred and Lawrence Sage, and my mom is Marie Jones. I lived in the village up until 2012, where I spent my last two years of high school and graduated in Mt. Edgecumbe.  I went to UAF immediately after high school and switched into the Rural Development program in my sophomore year.

Growing up in the village, I was raised with very traditional values. However, my mom focused on my academic success instead of being a hunter/gatherer, and I believe that her guidance is what lead to my accomplishments. However, I don’t believe that I’m much different from most village kids in terms of capability. My ideology is that the real leaders and change makers in Rural Development are in the villages, and it is up to them to make the decisions that best suit their communities. I got my degree in Rural Development to gain the technical knowledge to help these leaders make change happen in the way that they believe is best fit.

I currently work as an alternative energy specialist at NANA Regional Corp. Rural Alaska pays some of the highest costs of energy in the world, and I’m just doing my part to help tackle this issue. 


Carmaleeda Estrada, B.A. RD 2007, M.A. RD 2012

Carmaleeda EstradaCarmaleeda Estrada received her B.A. in Rural Development with an emphasis in Tribal and Local Government in 2007. After finishing an internship in the Alaska State Legislature, she began working for Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) in Juneau in 2008. She continues her work there as a Development Associate and Scholarship Coordinator where she facilitates the fundraising efforts of the organization along with helping students apply and qualify for college funding. She entered the M.A. in Rural Development program in 2010 while continuing her work at SHI and graduated in 2012. She attributes her continuing career at SHI to the Rural Development program, instructors, and curriculum. Her degrees through the Rural Development program have given her the foundation to parallel her education directly with her work. Her goal has always been to find a career that will allow her to weave together her ties to her Alaska Native heritage, rural communities and desire to impact growth and opportunities among her people. Her education through UAF has given her.


Diane Okleasik, B.A. RD 2016

Diane OkleasikI attended UAF for three years as a full-time student; then I moved home for one semester, and that one semester turned into many semesters!  I continued to take classes that interested me. Then I found out I did enough to get my A.A. in 1995. All the classes I found fun and interesting fit into the Rural Development Community Research and Indigenous Knowledge Concentration.  I always looked forward to picking out my classes from the catalog.  

In 1996 I enrolled in the BA Program for Rural Development.  I continued to take classes and made some friends of the heart through the program, including my husband Ukallaysaaq. I got serious about finishing when my oldest son, Ivik, graduated High School in 2013.  I wanted to get my degree before he got his; that was my incentive.  With laser-like accuracy, I targeted and completed the last few classes I needed for my degree.  

I found that I could successfully complete one class a semester since I usually work full time and am a mother and a wife.  I have three wonderful boys, Ivik, Qaulluq and Talugnaqtuaq.  Ivik is a Junior at UAF and his younger brother Qaulluq will start at UAF this fall.  My youngest son, Talugnaqtuaq, is looking forward to Kindergarten this fall, he reminds us that he graduated too, from Pre-School.  I tell them to finish before starting a family. It is so much easier if you stay focused and able to concentrate on classes while you are young, rather than balancing home life with work and school.  

During the course of attaining my degree, I took two classes five times. One was World History. It was hard for me as an Inupiaq to learn about all the atrocities that have happened to Native People around the world.  I was able to pass the class once I created a barrier, a separateness from the people.  Keep trying even if you have to take a class more than once. I did.  I was talking to my sister’s stepson; he was talking about being a dropout and how he didn’t finish.  He was really bummed out thinking he was a dropout.  I never thought of myself as a dropout. I knew I would finish. I didn’t know it would take 27 years!

I have had some good jobs, and this degree makes me more qualified for them. I have more opportunities now that I have this hard-earned piece of paper.  I am able to graduate because of the rural campuses.  You can stay home and get your degree.  I did!  I am able to graduate with the support of my family, especially Ukallaysaaq--quyanaqpak Uiga.


See caption below image
Yvonne and her husband Howard Gregg III
have two children, Aubrianna and Howard IV.

Yvonne Gregg, B.A. RD 2015

Yvonne (Ashenfelter) Gregg received a B.A. in Rural Development, with a concentration in Community Business and Economic Development, from UAF in December 2015 and has an A.A. in General Studies from the University of Alaska Anchorage, 2008.

Yvonne is a 2003 graduate of Mt. Edgecumbe High School. Yvonne attended UAA, on-and-off again between 2003 and 2009, until receiving her AA degree. While in Anchorage, Yvonne worked for one of the CDQ organizations and found her passion of working with rural Alaska communities to work toward economic development and self-sustainability. It was during this time that Yvonne discovered the RD program at UAF and felt this degree would suit her best and began taking distance education classes. In 2013, Yvonne returned home to White Mountain with her family and continued to take distance education classes and work part-time. Yvonne loves that UAF has a great distance education program that provides the classes needed to obtain a degree while living away from a UAF campus. The option of distance education courses is what made the RD program attractive to Yvonne and allowed her to live and be with her family at home while taking classes. Yvonne is currently the Utility Clerk for the City of White Mountain Utilities.


Minnie Naylor, B.A. RD 2008

Minnie NaylorRural Student Services is pleased to welcome their new Advisor, Minnie Naylor. She is originally from Kotzebue and has family from Noatak and Shishmaref. Minnie graduated from UAF in 2008 with a in Rural Development and an emphasis in Community Organizations and Services. She spent the last five years working in Anchorage. Minnie’s last position was Project Assistant with the Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska. Prior to that appointment, she was the Administrative Assistant for the UAA College of Education. Lastly, she was Village Access Coordinator for Chukchi Campus, performing similar duties that she will assume at RSS. Minnie is replacing Carol Murphrey, who became the Foundation Program Manager at Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation.


Jason D. Smith, B.A. RD 2014

Jason D. SmithMy name is Jason D. Smith. I am half Yup’ik and half Cup’ig originally from Bethel, Alaska. I am the grandson of the Late Peter Jacobs Sr and Lucy Jacobs of Bethel, and the late Peter Smith Sr and Mary Smith of Mekoryuk. I am the son of Showalter Smith Sr and Grace Ann Smith currently of Eagle River.

I grew up in a mixture of rural and urban settings. I lived in Bethel as a child, and then spent my teen years living in Eagle River, Alaska.

I attended the Kuskokwim Campus (KuC) from 2010 to 2012, and enjoyed the learning experience. While there I was enrolled in the A.A. general studies program. I participated in Student Government as a member at large and as President. I was then selected as the KuC Student of the Year for the 2011/2012 school year. I graduated cum laude and was asked to be the student address speaker for the A.A. program.

I then enrolled in the B.A. program for Rural Development with a concentration in Rural Community Business and Economic Development and attended from 2012 to 2014. I spent one year at the UAF campus and the following year, I decided to finish in Bethel since the majority of the classes were offered distance delivery. The next year I finished at the Kuskokwim Campus which is a satellite campus for UAF, I decided to re-start Student Government and eventually participated as President again. I was also a member of the Coalition of Student leaders representing the Kuskokwim Campus. I decided to participate in the KuC graduation in Bethel and spoke as the B.A. student address speaker.

I then started working for the Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP Inc.) as a Community Development Intern and was then promoted to a Community Development Specialist.


Bryan Uher, B.A. RD 2012

Bryan UherBryan Uher is the Administrative Manager at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Interior Alaska Campus.  Bryan has been with the University for the past 14 years, where he started as a Student Assistant at the age of 18, and has moved up to the position he holds today. 

Bryan graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with an Associate of Applied Science in Applied Business:  Marketing and a Bachelors of Arts in Rural Development.  He is currently pursuing a Masters of Arts in Public Administration through the University of Alaska Southeast. He is currently a Road Service Commissioner for the Golden Valley Subdivision through the Fairbanks North Star Bough and has been a member of the UAF Staff Council.   

Bryan was born in Anchorage, Alaska and was raised in Trapper Creek, located at mile 115 of the Parks Highway.  He enjoys outdoor activities to include:  hiking, snowboarding, hunting, and boating.  Bryan’s main hobby is art, where he builds furniture and wall hangings that incorporate Alaska’s beautiful Birch tree.  


Tonya Garnett, B.A. ANS 2002, B.A. Sociology 2002

Tonya GarnettTonya holds a B.A. in Alaska Native Studies and a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2002. She has completed coursework towards an MA in Rural Development. As an undergrad at UAF, Tonya made the Dean’s and Chancellor's list and was the student of the year for both the Alaska Native Studies and Sociology department. She was a student employee for Rural Student Services, Career Services, and Alaska Native Language Center in conjunction with RAHI. Tonya was also a recipient of the Gates Millennium Scholarship.

Tonya is Neets’aii Gwich’in,  is the mother of Ashton Philip Peter, who is 6 years old, and both currently live in North Pole, Alaska. Tonya is the daughter of Lillian and Jerry Garnett, the granddaughter of Ezias and Martha James of Arctic Village, and Edgar and Lucy Garnett, of Cleveland, Ohio. She is originally from Vashraii K’oo (Arctic Village, AK) and enjoys going home as often as time allows to get grounded in culture and clarity in the direction of the life she chooses to live. She spends some time with community volunteer work, dancing with her traditional Native dance group and teaching the songs, volunteering for the Arctic Village Council and staff, and providing mentorship to youth.  

Tonya is currently the Communications Director for Fairbanks Native Association (FNA), a Native non-profit organization and Interior Alaska’s first civil rights organization providing services in the fields of education, behavioral health, and community services. Prior to working for FNA, Tonya has spent much of her post-graduate work with Tanana Chiefs Conference Self Governance and Tribal Development, Arctic Village Council, Doyon Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters Rural Expansion Program, and with Three Star Enterprises, LLC on the Administration for Native Americans Alaska Region T/TA contract. Tonya has spent much of her time with meeting facilitation, public speaking, workshop/conference/event coordination, public relations, government relations/education, scholarship reviewer, federal grant reviewer, facilitator, evaluator, and traveling all over the United States meeting with Tribes and Native organizations learning about the projects empowering their communities. Tonya has served as a representative and as a board member on Gwich’in Council International, Yukon Flats School Board, and the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government. Tonya has also served as an ambassador to the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program by presenting at the local high schools on the scholarship process and benefits and as a reviewer of the submitted applications.


Pearl Kiyawn Brower, B.A. Anthropology 2004, B.A. ANS 2004, M.A. RD 2010, Ph.D. Indigenous Studies 2016

Pearl Kiyawn BrowerPearl holds a B.A. in Anthropology and a B.A. in Alaska Native Studies from University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2004.  Also a Masters in Rural Development from University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2010.  She earned her currently Ph.D. in Indigenous Studies, with an emphasis in Indigenous Leadership from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2016

Ms. Brower is currently the President of Iḷisaġvik College, Alaska’s only Tribal College.  She has been with the College for the past eight years working in External Relations, Institutional Advancement, Student Services, and Marketing.  She has served as President since 2012.  Prior to working for the College Ms. Brower managed an education and culture grant for the North Slope Borough and worked as the Museum Curator of the Iñupiat Heritage Center. 

Ms. Brower grew up in both Barrow, Alaska and in northern California practicing a subsistence lifestyle in both areas.  She has a daughter who is 3 and along with her husband, Jesse Darling, lives in Barrow, Alaska where she loves to be close to her culture and community.  Brower was named one of Alaska’s Top 40 Under 40 this year.  She is Board Member of the Friends of Tuzzy Library, and was a co-founder of Leadership:Barrow. 


Brianna Gray
Brianna Gray with her
husband and two children.

Brianna Gray, B.A. RD 2012

My name is Brianna Gray; I am originally from King Cove, Alaska and currently reside in North Pole. My grandparents are the late Lydia and Ernest William Mack of King Cove. My parents are Dorene Bunch Mack and Lavelle Webb. I am married to LaCross Gray Jr. and have two beautiful children Aaliyah and LaCross III.

I received my BA in Rural Development from UAF; a Master’s of Science in Leadership and Human Resources from Walden University; and a Masters Certificate in Government Contracting from Villanova University. Up until my current position I worked for UAF in various departments from 2009-2012. I moved to Florida from 2012-2015 and recently contributed to the planning and implementation of a welding program at Northwest Florida State College to meet the workforce development needs of the Okaloosa County area. I am currently employed with the Tanana Chiefs Conference as a Community Planning Coordinator. 

I encourage others to further their education through the Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development Program because it revitalized my motivation to continue my journey in higher education. The faculty and staff at DANSRD gave me the opportunity to grow professionally and personally through a curriculum that truly meets the needs of Alaska Native and Indigenous people. I know how important education is in the development of our communities and Tribes and hope to support and set an example as an RD Alumni.


Denali Quyanna Qapvik Whiting, B.A. ANS 2015

Denali Quyanna Qapvik WhitingMy name is Denali Quyanna Qapvik Whiting, born and raised in Kotzebue Alaska. I recently earned my BA in Alaska Native Studies with a minor in American Sign Language with a cumulative G.P.A. of 3.69.  I am Iñupiaq Eskimo and was raised going to camp throughout the year with my grandparents to be immersed in my culture and live a subsistence lifestyle.

The Alaska Native Studies Program at UAF was the perfect fit for someone as enthusiastic and curious about their culture and history as I am.  It was always so fun to do research that benefitted my home communities or taught me more about my personal family history.  I had opportunities to interview family members about growing up in camp, hunting, tanning sealskins for clothing, rural leadership, and more. It was hard to leave home in the fall, especially since that is one of the most active times for subsistence hunting and gathering.  I would be in school studying and writing papers about being out in the land while my family and peers were actually at home hunting caribou and gathering blackberries… living the life I was writing about in research papers.  It was hard to miss out on camping and family gatherings while I was away.  However, I realized that I had the opportunity to learn a lot more about the history and traditions of my own culture through active study in this program than I might have if I chose to stay home in the village. I would not be where I am today as a young Iñupiaq woman without the experiences that the Alaska Native Studies program at UAF has offered me.  


John Henry, B.A. RD 2015

John HenrJohn Henry is a 33-year-old RD graduate originally from Anchorage, but living permanently abroad in the coffee growing mountains of Panama. In 2011, after years of volunteer work among Indigenous peoples in Latin America, John and his wife founded a small non-profit whose objectives included cultural revitalization efforts of Indigenous traditional music, storytelling, and dance. Through his work, he began to see the need to make a practical difference concerning the injustices, poverty, and cultural trauma that too often plagued the people he worked with. He felt like furthering his education was the next step. However, working full time, and having a young family in another country presented difficulties for attaining that education. 

After much research, he discovered that the UAF B.A. in Rural Development was a perfect fit for his work with Indigenous Peoples and had the added bonus of offering all classes via distance learning. Also, by using Skype and Blackboard, he could even complete his entire course load of general education requirements as well! The RD courses he took and their concentration on Indigenous Knowledge have already begun to make positive changes in his work with the Ngäbe people of Panama. He has also recently been accepted into the UAF M. Ed. in Cross-Cultural Education program and hopes to work with bi-cultural curricula and multicultural affairs in a university someday soon.


Hillary Presecan, M.A. RD 2014

Hillary PresecanI am a recent graduate from the MA Rural Development program. Since graduating, I've worked as an
 Archivist/Documentary Film Intern at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum. After finishing my internship, I accepted a job offer as an Administrative
 & Museum Technician Assistant at THE INDIAN MUSEUM OF NORTH AMERICA at the Crazy Horse Memorial, located near Rapid City, South Dakota. I work under a grant that brings in American Indian artist to the museum at the Crazy Horse Memorial to do monthly lectures, one person shows, artist in residence, as well as student internships for American Indians to learn more about the museum world. As a museum technician, I will be cleaning, moving, labeling, and reorganizing the artwork and objects throughout the museum's collection.


Sharon Hildebrand, B.A. ANS 2013

Sharon HildebrandThe Alaska Native Studies B.A. degree has helped me tremendously with my goals and future career. The degree program introduced me to contacts that I still have today. The week-long leadership seminar was the best.  I am currently attending the University of Idaho, College of Law.  I am living with my family in Pullman, WA, pursuing a J.D. with a Native American Law emphasis


April Laktonen Counceller, M.A. RD 2006

April Laktonen CounellerApril Laktonen Councellar entered the Rural Development M.A. program after graduating from Brown University in 2002.   Her master's project “Kodiak Alutiiq Language Conversational Phrasebook (with audio CD)” was published by the Alutiiq Museum.   She is currently the Alutiiq Language Manager at the Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository in Kodiak, Alaska and pursuing an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. researching the cultural significance of the Alutiiq Language New Words Council on Kodiak Island.   She will advance to candidacy this summer, and plans to complete her dissertation and graduate in 2010.   She is receiving funding support through the UAF Linguistics program's SLATE grant from the Dept. of Education, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Dissertation Completion Fellowship.