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Alaskan student hopes to work with native population

STANFORD -- Where Jennifer Esquiro grew up in Sitka, Alaska, it was more usual for a 16-year-old to save up money to buy a boat than a car. After all, Sitka is on an island and there are only 17 miles of roads.

It also was more usual for high school graduates to stay home and earn good money at the local cannery or, at most, to go to the University of Alaska.

However, Esquiro's father, who had been a teacher before becoming general manager for a fishery association, and her mother, an elementary school teacher, encouraged her to look much farther afield. A visit to her brother, Joe Azure, who graduated two years ago, introduced her to Stanford University and she quickly dropped plans to attend a smaller school.

But even the best-made plans can go awry.

"I was a really good student in high school," said Esquiro, who majored in human biology at Stanford. "A lot of my self-esteem went down the drain after I got here," when she saw other students going out while she was hitting the books.

Part of what she was struggling with was culture shock. As a member of the Tlingit and Tsimpsian tribes, she had never been exposed to many of the ideas she encountered in her freshman Western Civilization class. While Esquiro's classmates had grown up reading the New York Times, "the biggest thing in our paper was local sports," she said.

Nor had she had much experience in speaking in front of groups. "I didn't know what questions to ask. . . . At home I felt confident, but here that probably was my hardest thing," Esquiro said.

After two years struggling with low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy, Esquiro gave Stanford one last chance. She went to live at Muwekma Tah Ruk, the Native American theme house on campus, along with 30 students, about one-half Native Americans.

This year, she was the resident adviser at Muwekma Tah Ruk, which is an Ohlone word that loosely translated means "The House of the People."

She also has gotten involved in the American Indian Summer Institute Program, a three-week experience designed to provide a bridge to Stanford for new Native American students by introducing them to campus resources and honing their writing and math skills. The biggest advantage, Esquiro said, is that they meet other Native American students before school starts.

"In the bridge program, you meet people individually, become friends, play softball with faculty members. . . . There's a real gap between those who come for the bridge program and those who don't," she said.

This year, Esquiro's goal was to give something back, both to her community in Sitka and to her community at Stanford. At the end of last quarter, she arranged for a group of six Stanford students from various tribes to go to Sitka and give dance demonstrations in local schools. Then, for Powwow and Spring Faire at Stanford, a group of Gajaa Heen Dancers, made up of junior and senior high school students in Sitka, came to campus to perform Alaskan dances.

Esquiro and her sister Heather, who is a sophomore at Stanford, were instrumental in raising the $9,000 needed for transportation and housing. For starters, they got their father to use his influence with the Sitka fish cannery to get 200 pounds of salmon donated for a giant Alaska salmon feed.

Esquiro rates the two dance programs an enormous success. She said she hopes seeing Stanford will inspire the Sitka students to further their educations outside Alaska, and she was happy to have some people from Stanford finally see where she's from.

Esquiro has every intention of returning to Alaska, which she calls "the most beautiful place I've ever seen," or settling in a small city that has a significant Northwest Coast Indian population.

But first, she'll prepare this summer for the Medical College Admissions Test, then apply to medical school. Eventually she hopes to become a pediatrician.

Her interest in medicine was piqued a few years back when her mother had to be medically evacuated to Anchorage while giving premature birth to Jennifer's brother. Esquiro said she'd like to specialize in prenatal care and in treating substance abuse among the Native American community.

"In some smaller communities, you can make more progress in terms of the people right there who are not as transient," she said.

Perhaps she'll find in her work what she discovered at Stanford: "The more you get involved, the more you see can be done."



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