The following article is from the forthcoming edition of the SJU Magazine, which should be arriving in mailboxes later this month.
It’s a long way from Chefornak, Alaska, to Collegeville, Minnesota, geographically and culturally.
But Moses Wiseman ’23 said a common bond connects the small Alaskan village and the new home he has found at Saint John’s University.
“I love Alaska very much,” said Wiseman, who grew up in a village of 418 people located in the Yukon Delta near the Bering Sea. “A lot of that comes from the Native culture I grew up in.
“Native values can differ from culture to culture, but we as Native people try to care for each other. We might see people who are different from us, but we still care for them and try to make sure they feel like they belong. And I think that connects really strongly to the Benedictine values we have here at Saint John’s.”
“The whole ‘Minnesota Nice’ thing, and that real sense of community you find at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, is such a wonderful thing."
Wiseman is far from the only Alaskan student to have found a second home at CSB/SJU. Over the past 10 years, a total of 38 students from the state known as “The Last Frontier” have enrolled at the two schools – including four who, like Wiseman, identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.
That includes a high of seven students in the incoming first-year class in 2017 and six each in the first-year classes of 2014, 2018 and 2019. Numbers have been down the past three years as COVID-19 kept CSB/SJU admissions representatives from traveling to Alaska.
The grand total ranks Alaska 12th in total students enrolled at CSB/SJU during that timespan – behind Minnesota (7,210), Wisconsin (265), California (239), Texas (195), Illinois (120), Colorado (93), Iowa (72), North Dakota (70), Nebraska (62), South Dakota (61) and Florida (42).
“Coming to Minnesota and attending Saint John’s provided me with an educational opportunity that wasn’t available in Alaska,” said Nevin Vincent ’22, who grew up 42 miles northeast of Anchorage in Palmer, Alaska and graduated from Saint John’s in May with degrees in political science and history.
Vincent just completed his fourth summer fighting wildfires with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Forestry Division.
“I’ve been able to better myself as a person,” he said.
Tom Voller-Berdan, the senior associate director of admission at CSB/SJU, was in charge of recruiting Alaska for several years. He worked with both Wiseman and Vincent as they made their college choices.
Voller-Berdan credited Cal Mosley, the former CSB/SJU vice president for admission and financial aid, with making Alaska a recruiting priority.
“We had students from Alaska before that, but he really laid a lot of the groundwork,” Voller-Berdan said. “He had a cousin who lived in Anchorage and he had a passion for the place. He loved it there.”
Voller-Berdan said the fact that Alaska has only a few four-year colleges means many high school students there are open to looking elsewhere – and Saint John’s and Saint Benedict catch their eyes.
“There is a circuit of Alaska college fairs, and in my years traveling there, we were the one school that wasn’t like the others,” he said. “Except for the big college fair in Anchorage, which usually had about 150 colleges represented, the others were all around 35.
“Just about all those schools were located in the Pacific Northwest. As a school from the Midwest, we really stood out being there.”
Although Alaska is the biggest state in the nation in terms of geography, Voller-Berdan said it is small enough in terms of population that positive word-of-mouth can get around.
“It’s really about making the right connections,” he said. “Once a few kids come and have a good experience it helps build a bridge to others.”
Finding a Place
Wiseman said being at Saint John’s has helped him develop his voice. In addition to playing for the men’s volleyball club team, he also helped create CSB/SJU’s Indigenous Student Association – allowing him to work on issues he is passionate about.
“When I first came here, I wasn’t as vocal as I am now,” he said. “But I’ve always known what my voice is. I’ve always known I have the power to make change and I love that about myself.”
After graduating next May, Wiseman would like to enroll in an accelerated nursing program. After that, he could see himself returning to the Y-K Delta to help serve his people.
The village Wiseman is from, Chefornak, is not connected to any major roadways. It is primarily accessible by plane, boat or, in the winter months, snowmobile. Just getting used to the different vehicles he sees each day at SJU has taken some time.
Wiseman’s hometown of Chefornak, Alaska (pop. 418) is accessible only by plane, boat or – in the winter – snowmobile.
“Growing up in my village, the only time I’d see cars was when we had to go to the hospital for appointments (about a 45-minute trip by bush plane). I’d see cars in movies, and I’d think ‘Oh my gosh, I want one like that!’ When you’re a child you dream. So to come here and see so many different cars on campus has been crazy,” he said.
“Our diet is also very different from the Western diet,” Wiseman said. “We mainly live off the land. Seal is one of our many dishes. Fish, moose and birds. And plants. We forage a lot. That’s really different too.”
“We mainly speak our Native language there,” he continued. “The only place we ever spoke English was at school. The teachers that we had at our school mainly came from the Midwest. Most of them would end up leaving after two years due to the loan forgiveness thing. So, I had some exposure to people from this part of the country.”
Wiseman said Saint John’s first crossed his radar thanks to his cousin, Regina Therchik, with whom he attended boarding school as a freshman at Mount Edgecumbe in Sitka.
Therchik graduated from the College of Saint Benedict in 2020.
“I first learned about Saint John’s my freshman year and I was very intrigued by how it looked,” Wiseman said. “They had a men’s volleyball club and volleyball is something that has really helped me over the years. I also liked the nursing program here, too. The influence of my cousin coming here has helped me a ton.
“I’d ask her if she liked it and she did.”
A Helping Hand
Wiseman said he would not have been able to make Saint John’s work if not for the scholarship he received. He’s the eighth of 11 siblings. His father helped build houses and his mother is a head start teacher in their village.
“Coming from a family whose socioeconomic status is poverty to low-income, I’m very grateful to have had this opportunity and been granted these scholarships,” Wiseman said. “That was really the biggest factor in my decision to come here.”
Vincent said scholarships also played a huge role in his decision to enroll at SJU.
“I'm immensely thankful for the scholarships because they meant I could continue my studies without such major financial constraints,” he said. “My summertime is limited to only a few months of work as a wildland firefighter in Alaska. What I make immediately goes towards sustaining my studies here at SJU. My parents have continued to support me throughout the process, drawing from their retirement to assist with finishing my studies.
“Receiving those scholarships alleviated some of my financial pressures moving forward.”
Having that peace of mind has been important when Vincent has been out in the field working to contain raging forest fires.
“There are moments when it can get kind of scary,” he said. “But it’s gratifying because you know what you’re doing is having a significant impact on the course of the fire. You’re protecting people, lives and property.”
Vincent also had the chance to work as a student captain on the Saint John’s Fire Department, providing him with a very different set of experiences.
“That’s been a good experience because the calls on campus are a lot more residential in nature,” he said. “There are a lot of smoke alarms from people who burned something cooking, and there are medical calls. But we still have to be prepared for fires.
“My sophomore year in the fall of 2019, someone threw a grill away in the dumpster by the baseball field and it caught fire. It started smoldering and eventually the whole dumpster caught fire.”
The Right Climate
Minnesota winters can sometimes seem harsh to those coming from out-of-state. They don’t seem like that big a deal to Wiseman and Vincent after growing up in Alaska.
In fact, they said for them, weather was one of the selling points. Voller-Berdan offered to fly Vincent to Collegeville for a visit after the two met at a college fair.
“It was in mid-February and it was really cold and it was snowing pretty hard,” Vincent said. “But that didn’t bother me because it reminded me of the weather at home.
“I was amazed by the campus, though – the Arboretum, the Bell Banner of the Abbey Church, the Abbey itself. I love history and there was so much of it to be found here,” Vincent said.
“The climate is really similar to Alaska,” Wiseman added. “That’s one of the reasons I really liked it here.
“The staff and administration have also done their best to make me feel involved. It wasn’t always the easiest adjustment coming from where I come from. There was a lot I had to get used to. So I really appreciated them going out of their way to help.”
A Valuable Experience
Vincent and Wiseman wouldn’t trade their Saint John’s experiences for anything.
“I discovered a lot about myself here,” Vincent said. “I found my passion for history and political science. I’ve always had a passion to serve the community around me. But that’s something that’s really stressed here.
“More than anything, though, if I hadn’t come here I’d have missed out on being part of this community. I’ve made so many friends here and I’ve cultivated a network of support. Those are lifelong things.”
“I really feel like the Saint John’s community has helped guide me as I’ve figured out exactly who I am,” Wiseman added. “I’ve discovered passions here – things that I want to fight for, the different people and marginalized groups I want to advocate for.
“I’m sure I would have been able to develop some of that someplace else. But being at Saint John’s provided me with some really strong roots to grow from.”