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Unalaska's Arctic Youth Ambassador: 'We're Going To Make Progress'

Courtesy of Alaska Geographic Field Institute

Unalaska's Brian Conwell is serving as a youth ambassador to the Arctic Council for the next two years. 

The high school senior recently attended the 5th Annual Arctic Encounter Symposium in Seattle, where he met with leaders like U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski and Lt. Governor Byron Mallott.

KUCB's Laura Kraegel spoke with Conwell afterward to ask what policymakers have planned for Alaska.


CONWELL: Lisa Murkowski mentioned that her goal was security. For some people, security means different things. But for her, she said security as a parent is knowing your child will have a secure future. Not necessarily militarily being secure, but definitely diplomatic security. For Byron Mallott, I guess his view of the Arctic is really Alaska-centric. He really wants to see Alaska become a leader in the Arctic, because there are certainly areas where Alaska can step up more.

KUCB: You're hearing a lot of different Alaska leaders share their visions for the Arctic. But what's been your big takeaway? What do you want to the see from the Arctic?

CONWELL: I think the biggest thing I took away from this was the importance of local input and indigenous input. Because it was funny. It was a symposium about the Arctic in Seattle. Seattle isn't Arctic. And two of our speakers were representatives from Washington. Washington isn't in the Arctic. One of the speakers [Kawerak President Melanie Bahnke] did a really great job of pointing this out. She said that having the Arctic Encounter Symposium in Seattle is like having a symposium on Africa in Tokyo. It just doesn't make sense. I know it's really convenient for everybody to fly into Seattle. But I think it'd be more helpful … it'd be more like leading by example if we chose to have our symposium in Alaska or anywhere in the Arctic, really.

KUCB: It sounds like you're seeing some of the frustrations or imperfections that emerge when you're talking through big issues like this with people who are coming from a lot of different places and perspectives. So how would you describe the overall tone of this meeting? Did you see optimism? Any butting heads?

CONWELL: I did see some butting heads when it came to climate change, actually. Someone said that if everyone just stopped using electricity, stopped using anything that emits carbon, Alaska’s impact would be negligible. And I would disagree with that. Because I think your mindset has to be that no matter how little the change, it's necessary for reaching the goal of a sustainable energy future for the world. So there were butting heads, people saying, 'Why are we using our Alaska resources to help fix this environment, where even if we were perfect we wouldn't make a dent?' It’s kind of disheartening. But I think there are enough people who believe in our power to make a change, however little, that we’re going to make progress.

KUCB: Beyond climate change, what other issues did you focus on? I know you really care about education.

CONWELL: I was able to talk to one of the head people at ANSEP [the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program] about when high schoolers in Alaska go to college, they need to take remedial classes most of the time. He had a study that said half of the people from Unalaska have to take remedial classes when they go to college in the UA system. And there are places, like Mount Edgecumbe High School, where 70 percent have to take remedial classes. Fifty percent is actually one of the best in the state, which is also disheartening.

Basically, his thoughts were that we need to be more rigorous about our education. And education in rural areas is a way to break the cycle of rural poverty, if local school board and local decision makers decide to commit their communities to having rigorous standards for education. Which I think our school board is doing a fine job at. It’s just that our entire state needs to know about the issue and also care about the issue enough to stick their necks out for students in rural places, who might need extra resources to succeed at the college level.

Laura Kraegel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2020. She was KUCB's news director starting in 2019. We are proud to have her back in the spring of 2023 filling in as an interim reporter for KUCB.
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