By Jenny Neyman
Kenai Peninsula College’s celebration Thursday marked a new development for the Kenai River Campus that was 30 years in the making, but one that harkens back much, much longer.
With the opening of its new dorm facility, KPC students will now be able to enrich their college experience by living where they learn. It’s the accomplishment of a goal set decades ago, in the early days of the then-Kenai Peninsula Community College.
“A big part of the student housing is to support students, and we all know that Alaska is in transition, and so many Native students move to urban areas in this state so that they can be supported in their educational endeavors. And what I really appreciate is now we have (92 rooms) for students — for all Alaskans, and especially those Alaska Native students that need to be supported — so that they have a chance to move forward and make an impact in their lives and in the state,” said Gloria O’Neill, on the University of Alaska Board of Regents, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday afternoon.
But it’s not the first time the campus site has seen residents. A thousand and more years ago, the area was home to a Dena’ina Native fishing village, where residents operated weirs at Slikok Creek to provide food for the winter, which they stored in cache pits. Dena’ina youth learned from their elders the skills needed to succeed in the industry of their day.
“The land we are standing on now is a very special place. Human lives were transformed on this site more than a thousand years ago,” said Gary Turner, KPC director.
Slikok Village was home to an estimated 75 people. What remains are imprints from houses and more than 100 cache pits dug into the ground to store the bounty from fishing and hunting. As the future dorm site — across Community College Drive from the campus proper — was surveyed, archaeologist Dick Reger found four cache pits that were previously undiscovered.
KPC anthropology professor Alan Boraas and students conducted a dig of the pits in 2010, documenting charcoal, fire-cracked rock, bits of birch bark and a chunk of birch plank that was estimated through radiocarbon dating to 1410 A.D., Turner said. One of the pits is outside the back door of the new dorm building, and another sits on a rise not far from the front door. Both will have interpretive signs in the future.
“So students will know who lived here before them, and to give them an appreciation and understanding of the rich cultural heritage of this special place. Where our students will live is where the Dena’ina lived,” Turner said.
Inside, the building bears witness to another current of Kenai-area history and culture. Two planks from the Libby, McNeill and Libby cannery at the mouth of the Kenai River, operating from 1912 to 1998 and torn down by Kenai Landing, Inc., in 2012, will hang above the elevator doors. Cannery workers signed their names on wood planks and beams to commemorate their involvement in the fishing process. Those involved in the dorm and its first crop of students were asked to sign their names, as well, before the planks are put in place.
“To demonstrate support for the education process,” Turner said.
On a larger scale, the existence of the dorm and the new Career and Technical Education Center, also celebrated with a ribbon-cutting Thursday, are demonstrations of support for the college.
“You can always mark the strength of an organization by how well its community supports them,” said Tom Chase, University of Alaska chancellor.
The dorm building was a long time coming. In 1981, John Williams, former city of Kenai and Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor and one of the founders of the petroleum tech program at the then community college, took community and governmental letters and resolutions of support, a housing study and a plan for a $5.2 million dorm to the Legislature.
“Sad to say, he was not successful,” Turner said. “I renewed the push for housing in 2003 but I was told told, ‘No,’ at every turn, as well.”
But perseverance won the day, as a legislative effort led by House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Kenai, resulted in a general obligation bond to construct the facility, which now came with a price tag of $17.8 million.
“Watching this campus grow, I have to say, when Gary first came to town, folks didn’t know him very well. First impression was, ‘Kind of pushy. He must be from somewhere back East, he’s got that accent.’ And now, when you want to assign something you need to get done, you call Gary because he’s kind of pushy and he gets it done,” said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai, taking a light touch to the efforts Turner has made throughout his years as director to continue development of the campus.
The 39,678-square-foot, two-story dorm building contains four-person, furnished apartments with a full kitchen, common lounge area, two bathrooms and a separate bedroom for each student. Larger lounges with flat-screen TVs and various styles of funky furniture are staggered every four apartments. Downstairs is a multipurpose room and study/lounge area, recycling bins and mailboxes. Upstairs is a room for pool, pingpong and other games, and a gym to be equipped with workout machines. Vending machines are stocked with snacks, beverages and frozen foods, filtered water dispensers are installed on both floors and students have access via a walking path to the cafeteria at Alaska Christian College, across East Poppy Lane.
All this for $3,200 a semester. So far 32 students are signed up for the dorms, from as nearby as Nikiski, Kenai, Soldotna and Sterling, to farther-flung road-system towns of Wasilla and Eagle River, to remote villages of Aleknagik, Nanwalek, North Pole, Seldovia, St. Paul Island and Unalakleet, and from the Lower 48 — Texas, Utah, Florida and Colorado.
Six student resident advisers went through two weeks of training to help the new dorm residents navigate life on campus and away from home — challenges to which they can relate.
“All of these RAs have never been RAs before, and it’s our first time ever living in a dorm,” said Naomi Smardo, of Nikiski. “It’s been very exciting and a little bit nerve-racking knowing all the responsibility we have, but we’re excited. I’m looking forward to getting close to the students, impacting them and being able to help them.”
Smardo is starting her third year at KPC, pursuing her associate’s degree with a plan to go into dentistry, and just recently moved out of her parents’ house and into the dorm. Kristen McBride, studying psychology, also just moved out of her parents’ house in Kenai for the first time.
“For one, I thought it would be really beneficial to live near the college, and also I get to better help the students,” McBride said of her new job. After their first night in the dorms, they’ve already experienced some of the wrinkles they might have to iron out as students move in. “Last night there were some minor hiccups, like with some of the appliances, and one of the RAs got locked out of his room. And even our supervisor couldn’t get in so the lock was broken. Stuff like that was really fun and interesting, but we survived well.”
“To experience things as a group and as a team, it really makes us a lot more able to deal with it and that’s what we want for our students, too, is to feel like they have a family here,” Smardo said.
Academically, the addition of the Career and Technical Education Center expands the growing family of industry-related programs offered at KPC. The ancestor of those programs has been a part of KPC as long as the college has existed.
“We all know, within the natural resources industry, it’s what fuels the state. It’s our economic engine, and so I believe that KPC continues to not only add to the community, but add to the great state of Alaska,” O’Neill said, highlighting the history of KPC’s industry-training program. “Their work laid the foundation for a process petrochemical technology program that has been called the best in the world by a number of major oil companies.”
Micciche, himself a KPC graduate, now is a supervisor for ConocoPhillips, and said he’s always on the lookout for quality, KPC-trained workers.
“I was extremely well-prepared and excited about the level of the education I got here,” he said. “… (As a manager), hiring someone that’s ready to hit the ground running out of this system, it saves the employer about $80,000 of largely wasted motion. They come ready to go. Some of our top employees have come right out of this system.”
The new 19,370-square-foot, two-story facility, with a price tag of $15.25 million, is home to KPC’s process technology, industrial instrumentation and computer electronics programs. Classrooms are equipped with state-of-the-art interactive computer technology. Simulators will prepare students for what they will deal with in the field — both emerging technology and, curiously, old. But that’s the nature of the workplace students will be entering in the oil and gas fields of Alaska.
“What’s the life of a cellphone? Two years. What’s the life of instruments on the (North) Slope? Fifty to 60 years, so they have to know about the old instruments as well as the new,” said Rich Kochis, assistant professor of electronics technology. “… They’re already changing, and they have all the old legacy instruments that are still there. They’re gradually being replaced, but they’re still up there and somebody needs to maintain them, so (students) need to know a little bit about everything.”
Seen as components, the new buildings serve varied purposes like that — more space, capacity, architectural design, comfort (the faculty break room in the Career building is a welcome upgrade from the old microwave in a copy room, Kochis said) and convenience. All that form adds up to a much greater function.
“Buildings are one thing. We build these beautiful buildings, but what’s most important is what is contained within the walls, and what I’m so excited about is to think about the students who will be here and their learning, to take what they learn and put it to good use in this state,” O’Neill said.