Every summer a select group of high school juniors and seniors from rural Alaska attend a six-week program to prepare them for college life. The program is known as RAHI: the Rural Alaska Honors Institute. It’s held at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and this year’s salutatorian comes from Bethel.
The night before graduation, Larissa Strunk got the news that she’d been selected as RAHI’s 2016 salutatorian. She stayed up all night writing her speech, and the next day she was ready.
“I talked about how I doubted myself during my time at RAHI and then how a lot of my self-doubt went away,” Strunk said.
Strunk is 17 years old. She’s a rising senior at Bethel Regional High School and moved to Bethel last year from Quinhagak. Teachers selected Strunk as salutatorian from RAHI’s largest graduating class yet—68 students. In making their decision the teachers looked at her GPA (4.0), the papers she’d written, and her leadership in and out of the classroom.
“It kind of woke me up,” Strunk said about being chosen salutatorian, “because I believe in myself now that I’ll be able to do well in the outside world.”
RAHI is a program that gets rural and Alaska Native students ready for college academically, socially, and culturally. The Alaska Federation of Natives requested the program in the 1980's. Applications are competitive, and the program is free for those who are accepted. For six-weeks students live in dorms, take college classes, and earn close to a semester's worth of college credit.
Strunk says, for her, the program worked. She plans to attend UAF after high school and feels prepared.
“I now know what classes I would take in which buildings,” she said, “and I know what campus life is like and where the dorms are. So I feel like I’m ready.”
She says the program boosted her confidence and that the biggest boost came from professor Eran Eads, who helped her improve her writing abilities. He taught her how to whip out in-class essays in 40 minutes, something Strunk had never done, and helped her find a source of self-assurance.
“One of his messages was, ‘The call is coming from inside the house. You are your own saboteur.’ It’s like you control that inside voice. You are the one giving your own positive and negative messages,” she said.
The line comes from the 1979 film When a Stranger Calls.
Strunk says the RAHI classes were tough and the program intimidating, but in the end the hardest part was saying good-bye.
“On our last night we stayed up all night signing each others yearbooks, and crying and hugging,” Strunk said. “It was kinda a mess because of how much crying there was.”
But Strunk knows she might see some of those friends back at the university next year.