Keith Hamilton is using higher education to bring support, nurture and healing to vulnerable Alaskan Natives
Statistics about growing up in rural Alaska are bleak. According to the American Psychiatric Association, Alaskan Indians and Alaska Natives are twice as likely as the overall U.S. population to grow up in poverty, are more than two times as likely to experience violent abuse, and use alcohol and other drugs at younger ages and higher rates than all other ethnic groups.
A teenager from this kind of background faces an uphill battle to finish high school, let alone pursue college. That's where Alaska Christian College (ACC) comes in, a tiny school in snowy Soldotna, Alaska, led by founding president and Fuller alum Keith Hamilton (DMin '09, MDiv '07).
Offering a two-year "transitional opportunity" of general education and biblical studies, the college prepares young Alaskan Natives--many from villages so remote they're reachable only by plane--for further education, or to serve in certain ministry settings. Students take classes that range from English composition to biblical ethics in an environment that provides faith-based support, nurture, and healing interwoven with the academics.
Keith's passion to serve young people such as these was sparked when, as a new college graduate, he went on a one-year mission working with youth in Mexico City. There he discerned a calling to pastor young people, engage in mission outreach to specific people groups, and, he says, "to disciple everyone I come into contact with."
Needing academic training to equip him for full-time ministry, Keith enrolled at Fuller--first taking classes at Fuller Northwest, then moving to Pasadena to earn his MDiv with a concentration in youth ministry. That degree "still today influences how I lead the ministry of ACC," Keith says, adding that he also draws often on the teachings of professor Chap Clark on youth and family culture from his more recent Doctor of Ministry degree.
Keith served for 20 years in pastoral ministry before hearing the call to serve as ACC's first president in 2000--beginning, he says, with "no freshmen, finances, faculty, or facility." Since then, ACC has grown steadily and was recently accredited to offer two AA degrees, in Christian Ministry and Para-Professional Education.
But much more important than the degrees ACC students are earning is the transformation that's taking place in their lives. One graduate, Rae, speaks openly today of the abuse that was part of her life from the age of four, and how she arrived at ACC without a shred of trust for humankind. But the loving support and patient listening she found at the school encouraged her to dream big dreams . . . and they came to fruition. She went on to be the first female Alaska Native Eskimo to graduate from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and become a commissioned U.S. Naval officer.
"There's no doubt in my mind I wouldn't have made it to where I am today without ACC," she is convinced. "Having that supportive atmosphere that integrated the college experience with being Alaska Native and being a Christian--that really helped bring out my identity as a person. It was a place I could blossom."
"We want to see new hope for rural Alaska," says Keith, "as ACC graduates return to their villages with the great news of Jesus Christ and lead in their families and churches. We know God is using us as a small part of the Body of Christ to help bring hope and real change to these 'forgotten' Americans."
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