Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Rhodes Scholar from remote Alaska (sorta')

I was delighted to see in the news this morning that among the United States students selected as Rhodes Scholars for the Class of 2018 is an Alaska Native woman named Samantha Mack.  What I initially read about Mack made me even more excited about her selection--namely that she is from remote King Cove, population 938, in the Aleutian Islands.  (Wikipedia reports that Henry Mack is the town's mayor--perhaps Samantha's father? or her grandfather?).  Indeed, when I "Googled" Samantha Mack, this story from the Green and Gold News (a University of Alaska, Anchorage, newsletter) came up about her work, as an undergraduate at the University of Alaska in a History of English class:
Senior Samantha Mack, a political science and English double major with a minor in Native Studies, is Aleut. She grew up in a fishing family in King Cove. For her linguistic analysis, Mack took a close look at her family’s copy of the 1991 King Cove Women’s Club Cookbook. Practically every household in King Cove owns one; Mack’s aunts contributed recipes. 
What caught her eye was the practice of “code-switching”—swapping between English, Russian and Aleut languages, as well as standard and village English—within recipes. In the classic recipe for fry bread (universal among indigenous cultures worldwide), residents insisted on including the local common name, aladix. Mack isn’t sure if that word is Russian or Aleut, but is definitely preferred among locals. 
Researchers consider “code-switching” in written documents, such as the cookbook, to be “an act of intentional subversion.” Mack called it “a form of resistance” to the overpowering language intrusions in the rural community. She notes that language revitalization projects surged in popularity at the same time the cookbook came together.
Given all that this story conveys about Mack's rural-rootedness--not to mention Mack's Aleut heritage, her gender, and her critical faculties--I was a bit saddened to see the following description of Mack (and the other newly named scholars) released by the Rhodes Trust (emphasis mine):
Samantha M. Mack, Anchorage, received her B.A. magna cum laude from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2016, with majors in Political Science and English, and will receive her M.A. in English with an emphasis on literary theory in May. She has a perfect academic record in each course, and is the first Rhodes Scholar from the University of Alaska Anchorage. An Aleut woman born in a remote village in the Aleutian Islands, her family brought her to Anchorage for better educational opportunities as a young girl. She has excelled across disciplines as she brings the lenses of indigeneity and feminism to issues in the development of Western democratic traditions. Her work in Alaska Native Studies and political theory reflect her strong interests in equity, respect for different patterns of life, and the prevention of the degradation of nature.
I wonder if Mack's family brought her to Anchorage "as a young girl" because of their perception of the educational deficits she might experience in King Cove--or out of concern for others' perceptions of those deficits.  I recall being on the committee to select the first group of Sturgis Fellows at the University of Arkansas back in the late 1980s.  During deliberations, a professor on the selection committee dismissed as unworthy a student from a very rural area because of his assumption that she hadn't been adequately challenged by her rural education to establish her merit and competitiveness for this scholarship.  I pointed out to him my own crummy rural background, as well as the fact I had been the University of Arkansas valedictorian in 1986 and was at that point first in my class at the University of Arkansas law school ....  To no avail.  The rural Arkansan didn't get the prestigious scholarship.

Whatever the reasons for the family's decision, Mack's own first-hand, family-based knowledge of life in an Alaska village seems priceless among the array of newly anointed Rhodes Scholars.  I'm also impressed that the Rhodes Committee selected a student who chose to be educated at the University of Alaska. 

As I perused the other biographies of Rhodes Scholar designees, I noted only a couple of winners with any claim to rurality.  After Mack, surely the "next most rural" Rhodes scholar grew up in Yankton, South Dakota, population 14,454.  Here's the Rhodes Trust description of that student, Joshua Arens:
graduated from the University of South Dakota in 2017 with a B.Sc, in Chemistry, summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA. Joshua researches a wide range of environmental problems and solutions, from reexamining the role of automobiles in society to discovering greener synthetic routes for polymers. Joshua is an evangelist for science-based policymaking. He is both a Truman Scholar and a Fulbright Scholar. During his time at the University of South Dakota, Joshua brought TEDx to campus and led a campaign to name the University a sanctuary campus. A fifth generation South Dakotan, Joshua grew up on a cattle and crop farm.
I love the fact that Arens' roots run so deep in a highly rural state--and the fact that those roots are in agriculture.  Further, his immigration activism defies the reputation of states like South Dakota as conservative.

Another new Rhodes Scholar grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a part of the Knoxville Metropolitan Area; another in Lithonia, Georgia, population 1,924, but part of the Atlanta Metropolitan Area; and yet another in Belden, Mississippi, an unincorporated area within the city of Tupelo, population 35,000.

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