Jenessa Oviok

Jenessa Oviok
Jenessa Oviok

Jenessa Oviok’s nephew was born with a hole in his heart. Watching him face that challenge, while she wasn’t able to help, helped her decide on a career. “That’s why I want to be a doctor,” she said.

Oviok, from Utqiagvik on Alaska’s northernmost coast, said she chose to start at UAF because it has strong biology and science courses.

Her lower-division classes, though, have included one whose subject she’s found very familiar -- a course in the Inupiaq language, which her grandmother taught in North Slope schools for 35 years.

In fact, Oviok lives with her grandmother in Utqiagvik when not in school. That time is spent learning, too.

“She teaches me how to sew and how to make homemade meals, traditional meals,” Oviok said.

Attending UAF wasn’t Oviok’s first foray outside Utqiagvik for education. She attended three of her four high school years at Mt. Edgecumbe, a state boarding school in the Southeast Alaska town of Sitka.

In 2019, she attended a summer camp at the University of California Los Angeles for students interested in medicine.

“We saw live surgeries and learned how to draw blood and stitch, and how to help people with medical emergencies when help is far away,” she said.

Oviok pursued that interest after watching her nephew struggle.

“He basically spent his whole baby years in the hospital,” she said. “One time he actually died for a few minutes (but was resuscitated). That was scary, and that whole time I just wanted to do something and I couldn’t.”

So Oviok started at UAF in fall 2019. She said she likes the atmosphere.

“It’s very small, and it’s close to Barrow,” she said, referring to her hometown by its previous name. “The weather is similar, and there’s family, some family, I know here, so I don’t feel as homesick as I used to when I was at Mt. Edgecumbe.”

On the Fairbanks campus, she lives in the Eileen Panigeo Maclean House, which she calls “the Maclean.” The house, established with help from the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., seeks to create a supportive atmosphere like that found in small communities such as Oviok’s home village.

“In Barrow, it’s like everybody knows everybody, and everybody is always there for everybody,” she said. “It’s in our culture to do that.”