Four years ago, Erik Sheldon suffered the worst upheaval a 14-year-old could experience: His mother died. Addicted to alcohol for two years, she abruptly went sober because she didn’t have money to buy whiskey. A seizure killed her. “She went cold turkey and her body didn’t react well,” said Erik, who is from Kiana but was living in Anchorage at the time. “I followed in her footsteps for a while and blamed myself for her death, that I wasn’t able to get her to stop. Treatment was really good for me. I learned ways to cope, and that’s where life really flipped.”
An aunt took in Erik and enrolled him in the Galena Interior Learning Academy. An anatomy and physiology course he took awakened an interest in health care and Erik graduated this spring, valedictorian of his class. Erik now participates in UAA’s Della Keats Health Sciences Summer Program—also known as “Della Keats 1.” The Della Keats programs are named for Della Puyuk Keats, an Iñupiaq woman with no formal education who became a traditional healer in Kotzebue.
DK1, DK2 (the Della Keats Summer Research Program), and the Alaska Native Community Advancement in Psychology program all provide no-cost opportunities for eligible high school juniors and seniors to spend six weeks of their summer in UAA dorms—supervised, no drugs or alcohol allowed—while working full time to job shadow doctors, nurses and dentists and learn academic skills they’ll need if they aspire to become a health care professional. When his mother was alive, Erik moved from Kiana to Anchorage to attend a better school.
Those days, Erik would be awake at 4 a.m., frustrated, because his mother’s friends were loud and he couldn’t focus. “I really cared about my schooling and education and her drinking got in the way of that.” Erik still sometimes stays up until 4 a.m., but now, it’s because he’s so absorbed in what he’s studying.
“I didn’t expect so much homework, but it just keeps me busy and motivated,” he said. “I’ve learned that I really am meant for the medical field, that this is the place for me.”
Story by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA