News & Events


April 28, 2016

Fleagle offers wisdom to new generations of students

This article was reprinted with permission from University of Alaska Fairbanks News and Information

When Elizabeth Fleagle retired in 1997, she felt lost. So she prayed about what she was supposed to do next.

Two weeks later, she got a telephone call with the answer. The American Indian Science and Engineering Society of Fairbanks asked Fleagle to teach teens how to reconnect with their traditional Alaska Native culture at Howard Luke’s culture camp. This camp, located along the Tanana River across from Fairbanks, was created so that Howard Luke could teach younger people their culture.

Since that initial call, Fleagle’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. She spends a majority of her time mentoring and teaching students at both the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Washington in the health and behavioral health fields.

Jessica Black, a UAF assistant professor of indigenous studies and special projects liaison for the office of the vice chancellor of rural, community and Native education, said Fleagle’s calm presence and experience are “absolutely instrumental” in guiding student success and graduation rates.

“Elizabeth is a true leader and culture bearer, versed in her Native way of life and always willing to share that knowledge with others,” Black said.

Fleagle isn’t a professor and doesn’t have a college degree, yet her contributions in the university classroom are beyond measure. She teaches from the heart about real life lessons. For almost two decades, the Inupiaq elder has served as a mentor in university classrooms.

fleagleFleagle shares her traditional wisdom, which bridges cultural barriers and connects Western knowledge with “experiential learning.” Fleagle has worked with the Rural Human Services program for 15 years as an elder in the classroom helping professors train behavioral health aides who work in Alaska villages. She also works with the psychology and social work programs and the Gaalee’ya project in science, technology, engineering and math. In May, the University of Alaska Fairbanks will recognize Fleagle’s lasting contributions to students with an honorary Doctor of Education degree at UAF’s 94th commencement ceremony.

“I share with students my story as a survivor of alcoholism and domestic violence,” said Fleagle, who is known to those she serves by her radiant and encouraging smiles. “I tell them that they can overcome the struggles they are going through. The words I say aren’t my words. God guides me to say the right thing.”

When she was a little girl growing up in Alatna, Fleagle wanted to become a teacher. More than half a century later, she did — just not the way she expected. Fleagle is a cultural and spiritual teacher who guides students to heal themselves so they can listen from the heart and help others. Her father Oscar told her that someday she would work with people from all different cultures. “Look at people who are different from you as one people, because that’s how God looks at them,” he said.

Her father’s prediction turned out to be true. While most of the rural human services students are Alaska Native, many of the social work and psychology students she works with are from a diverse spectrum of cultures and ethnicities.

Last year, Fleagle was part of the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. The pilot program brings together Alaska Native, Yakama Nation and Makah, Klamath and Lummi tribal elders who share their traditional values and knowledge with younger generations. Fleagle was also a mentor to other elders who had no prior experience in the classroom.

“This is the most amazing job I have ever had,” said Fleagle, who also worked as a nurse helping patients with tuberculosis and as a custodian at UAF. “The traditional values that my elders taught me growing up are the same values that I share with my students. I was raised to respect others and to work hard. If we are willing to work hard, God will provide us with what we need.”

Fleagle often ends classes by singing “Amazing Grace,” with students.

“It’s amazing that I am still here,” said Fleagle, reflecting on the hardship and joy that have shaped her life. “The students and I cry during the song because they feel it as much as I do. I also tell them to be careful of what they say because your words can unintentionally hurt other people’s feelings.”

Less than five feet tall, Fleagle’s diminutive height belies her quiet strength that has inspired students in certificate to doctorate degree programs to conquer their own struggles in academic and personal development. In that role, Fleagle is inspired to share the wisdom of her own mentor, David Salmon.

“Don’t quit now,” said Fleagle, the mother of five children. “As long as you can talk, keep going. God will put in your pathway those who can help you triumph over any challenge you face.”