Friday Focus: YOU belong at UAF

September 27, 2019

Tori Tragis

UAF photo by JR Ancheta.
UAF photo by JR Ancheta.

— by Dan White, chancellor

You may have noticed a shift in wording on our recruiting materials and signage from “you are welcome here” to “you belong here”. That was not by accident. To me there is a big difference between feeling welcomed and feeling a sense of belonging. The former is necessary but not sufficient. The latter is what can, will, and does separate UAF.

On many occasions in my life, I have experienced the difference between welcoming and belonging. For me, this most often occurred in different countries, but not always. Sometimes it was in a different community, a different side of town, or even a different physical space. On very many occasions I have been welcomed to an event, a gathering, a home or a church. But where I didn’t know the language, the customs, or didn’t look like anyone else - although truly welcome, I lacked a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, one need not go anywhere to lose their sense of belonging. A person’s words, a depiction, or even a gesture can separate someone from us or us from them. Fortunately, these are things we can fix. 

Last Tuesday, September 17, was a great day.  That was the day UAF unveiled the new mural in the library. My thanks to the Native Student Union who expressed concern about the representation of Alaska Native peoples in the previous mural. While the original painting reflected thinking in a different time, the depiction of Alaska Native peoples was hurtful to many and affected their sense of belonging at UAF. My thanks to the Rasmuson Foundation for commissioning the new mural and the artist, Percy Avugiak, whose painting brings color and celebration of culture and education into the library.  This process took two years, thought, courage, organization, and commitment. I would encourage you to stop in the library and take in a piece of art that represents a new sense of belonging for many across our great campus.

There are other places that will benefit from some broader thinking at UAF. Since becoming chancellor, I have received quite a number of concerns about the murals in the Reichardt building stairwells. While they depict scientific discoveries accurately, there is a distinct lack of diversity. We are exploring options to expand the work or create new art to broaden our perspective about discoveries in space, time, perspective and impact. We want all of our students to walk into our buildings seeing themselves, and seeing the great discoveries made by people to whom they can relate.  Such discoveries abound and with some intention, they will have a home on a wall in UAF’s central science education building, among others.  

You may have heard me welcome a meeting, convocation, or commencement in the Lower Tanana Dene language. I do this in recognition of the ancestral lands of the people who first occupied Troth Yeddha’.  Vice Chancellor Peter and I have been discussing a “welcome to UAF” sign in the Lower Tanana Dene language to speak to this history. I will suggest that rather than call it a welcome sign, it serve as a “belonging sign” - a sign to all of us whose sense of belonging is tied to those who came before.

As you take in all that UAF has to offer, can you envision your success in those we honor and celebrate? Send a note to my box of big ideas if we can do better. I would encourage you to stop by the Wood Center to take in Indigenous People’s Day on October 14 or the upcoming celebration of Diwali or the Chinese New Year. Next month is LGBT history month. Visit Nanook Engage to see activities across campus and contact the Department of Equity and Compliance if you would like to schedule gender inclusion training to increase your units’ awareness of our LGBTQ2IA+ community. Everyone belongs at UAF.

We had the unfortunate occasion this year of a student who lost his life. When I met with the young man’s mother, I was struck by the comfort she took in how deep his sense of belonging was at UAF. She took great solace knowing that her son knew that UAF was where he belonged. For all those who had a hand in that, your impact looms large and left an indelible impact. Thank you. Know that you too belong at UAF.

Things you do to create a sense of belonging for others may give a student the confidence they need to go to class, study a little longer, or conduct one more experiment. It may give a homeless student a “home”, an abused student a refuge, or bring peace to a grieving parent. Belonging is a powerful space, and at UAF we are in the unique position to couple that with education and discovery. What an opportunity!

Thanks for all you do. You belong at UAF.

Friday Focus is a column written by a different member of UAF’s leadership team every week.