On a rainy September day in 2001, a group of people gathered in the woods near Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna to celebrate the grand opening of Alaska Christian College.
Fifteen years later to the day, rain again threatened the plans for the college’s anniversary celebration and the ground breaking for its new dormitory. Luckily, the rain made way for patchy blue skies and a little sunshine by late afternoon, allowing the approximately 100 attendees to step outside to watch a group of supporters prepare for the new Taikuu addition.
“This land belonged to the Dena’ina people, the traditional (Alaska) Native people here,” said Alaska Christian College President Keith Hamilton, saying the college wanted to give respect to the people before starting the new project.
Alaska Christian College, a Bible college that serves Alaska Natives and other Native American people, recently welcomed its 17th class of students to its Soldotna campus. The college opened in 2001 with 22 students, five days after 9/11 paralyzed air travel across the country.
At the time, the college operated in an 8,400-square-foot building at the end of Royal Street, just down Poppy Lane from Kenai Peninsula College.
At the time, much was still up in the air.
Alaska Christian College was only a one-year college at the time and was not accredited. One of the rooms in the building was occupied by a disused swimming pool. Hamilton recalled speaking to the students at an early chapel, saying the college “didn’t even have a paperclip to its name.”
“Nine months later, at our first graduation, I was standing up on the state, waiting to give diplomas to the 18 students who were graduating from Alaska Christian College,” Hamilton said. “Every single one of them had a paperclip for me. Every one of them came by and handed me a paperclip … they are hanging in my office.”
Today, the accredited, two-year Alaska Christian College occupies 15 buildings on its 27.5 acres. The 81 students can earn Associates of Arts degrees in Para-professional education and Christian ministry, and in 2017, the college will begin offering an Associates of Arts degree in Behavioral Health.
Fully equipped classrooms bear names like “Denali” and “Northern Lights,” and students can borrow bicycles to get to town. They can walk between main buildings, where the 15th anniversary celebration was held, over a boardwalk all the way to the New Hope Counseling Center at the far end of campus.
Though the counseling center has been open to students for free since 2003, the college administrators opened it to community members at large in 2006 on a fee-for-service system. Counselors offer faith-based counseling but work with non-religious clients as well.
The close atmosphere at the college is helpful for students, said Santana Curley, a student from Flagstaff, Arizona. She and 12 other students this year come from Arizona, joining a student population that is majority Alaska Native.
She guided tours for those wishing to see the campus at the 15th anniversary celebration and waved to most of the other students she passed, greeting many by name.
“I just like that it’s a family,” she said. “Like, it’s hard to be here sometime, I miss home, but it’s so great to have a family up here.”
The college operates on an approximately $2.3 million budget. In the past, the majority of its revenue has come from U.S. Department of Education grants and contributions, gifts and grants. About a fifth of its budget came from tuition in 2013, according to the college’s 2013 tax documents, the most recent year available.
The college will soon add another wing to its central building, called Taikuu — Inupiaq for “Thank you.” The three-floor building will have a communal space as well as two floors of bedrooms, which will add 34 more beds for students.
Though the project is estimated to cost $1.7 million, much of the labor and preparatory work has been donated, dropping the cost to about $1 million, Hamilton said at the ground breaking. The college has already raised approximately $700,000 since the beginning of the year and hopes to raise the rest by Christmas, he said.
The celebration featured speeches from political figures, including former Alaska governor Sean Parnell and current Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna). Parnell’s wife Sandy serves on the board of directors, and Micciche has worked with the college in the past on projects and fundraising. In his comments, he commended Hamilton and the college for how far it has come in the last 15 years.
“I’m most proud here today recognizing that ACC programs have redirected many lives and have been instrumental in breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect and addiction that is so common in many places around the state,” Micciche said.
Students showcased their talents as well. A group of students sang and danced to two traditional Yup’ik songs, and a choir sang a Christian worship song in Yup’ik. A male student showed off his modern dance skills, and Hamilton took part in a Yup’ik tradition, throwing out a new item into the crowd to celebrate a significant event, such as the birth of a child or the catching of an animal.
Hamilton thanked everyone at the event for giving to the college over the years, both financially and through service.
“A lot of you that have jumped in over all these years, a lot of people have give sacrificially to make this place go,” Hamilton said. “I am so grateful as the president to hold the paperclips today. The Lord has done amazing things.”