Brian Conwell is greeted like rock star when he steps up to the microphone, surrounded by cheering teenagers from across Alaska. But he doesn't burst into song.
"I'm Brian Conwell, and I'm a RAHI reject," he tells the crowd.
When Conwell applied to the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) last spring, he was wait-listed. But after a last-minute invitation and six weeks of grueling college courses, Conwell has found himself headlining graduation as the valedictorian.
In 1983, the Alaska Federation of Natives and University of Alaska Fairbanks established RAHI to help more rural and Alaska Native students get to college and succeed. The transition to college is tough for most students. For rural Alaskans, it's even harder. Imagine walking into a college biology class larger than your entire high school . . . or hometown.
So RAHI gives rural scholars a full college immersion experience — from admissions to academics to dorm life. It's free, it's competitive, and it previews the challenges to come.
"Dropped into an unfamiliar college dorm with a bag full of clothes and a handful of school supplies, it was awkward at first," says Conwell. "We were used to our high school routines and our friends back home. We struggled together, enduring essays, presentations, late nights, early mornings, sun burns, bug bites, and homesickness."
With no one telling him to do his homework, Conwell says he felt responsible for his own education. By the end of the program, he knew he had a shot at being named valedictorian because he had a perfect GPA — but so did 18 other students.
"I didn't find out until the day before graduation," he says. "Greg Owen, RAHI's academic coordinator, came up to me and asked 'How do you feel about giving speeches?' And that's when I knew."
In his address, Conwell issued a challenge to his classmates: Whether you become a doctor or a dog musher, keep your community in your thoughts.
"Your home community is what made you who you are today," he says. "Remember the people in your corner, the people back home rooting for you."
Along with college credits, Conwell says he earned some insight over the summer. He'll apply to college for real this fall. And if he gets rejected from a few schools? Well, that's just the beginning of a great valedictorian speech.