FAIRBANKS, Alaska - Raised in the upper peninsula of Michigan, Denise Wartes came to Alaska as a young bride. At 19-years-old she and her new husband moved to Alaska to start a life on their own.
"As a newlywed, the day after I got married my husband and I drove cross country to Seattle, and the first time I flew on a plane was from Seattle to Fairbanks and Fairbanks to Barrow. Then I chartered 180 into the homestead where we lived for the next probably 8 to 10 years on the Colville River Delta," Wartes said.
Her husband Mark grew up in Barrow, now known as Utqiagvik. For him it was moving back home, but for Denise, it was a new adventure. There, Wartes learned how to hunt for Caribou and learned to fish for what was in season.
"In the summertime it might be Aanaakliq. In the winter it might be kaktuuq." she says.
They eventually moved to Fairbanks where they have lived ever since. Wartes started working for the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the College of Liberal Arts as the assistant to the dean. That is when she was first introduced to the Rural Alaska Honors Institute.
"She came and she asked me 'Would you be willing to help out for a day at the RAHI program?' The administrative assistant was ill and so I stepped up to the plate, and here I am over 30 years later," Wartes said.
The RAHI Program started back in 1983. There was a lot of concern then and even now between UAF and the Alaska Federation of Natives on how to help students from rural villages further their education. They found a solution with RAHI that still stands 36 years later. RAHI's impact on the university spans over three decades. The six week summer program is dedicated to giving students an idea of what to expect while studying at the university level. Wartes's credits her experience living remotely to better understand the students she works with.
"Something that is the tundra with the wind blowing, or that you don't get your groceries on a regular basis, all of those things I can really relate to pretty well," she said.
Since RAHI's inception, there have been nearly 2,000 students who have graduated from this program and over a thousand degrees earned attributed to this curriculum. Wartes is retiring after the RAHI graduation ceremony in July after serving as the program manager since 1989.
When asked what's next for Denise Wartes, she said, "I don't know. I've never retired before. So I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't plan to go away. I plan to stay here in the community. I may come back in one form or another to help the program, we'll see, but I'm still going to be around," said Wartes.
She also says retirement will be bittersweet but is looking forward to seeing how the RAHI program develops. In the meantime, she plans on spending quality time with her family and grandchildren.