Northwestern Alaska students attend Arctic Youth Ambassador Summit
A select group of college and high school students met in Anchorage from January 16-18 for the annual Arctic Youth Ambassador Summit. The 22 youth ambassadors, who serve two-year terms, come from 16 communities from around Alaska. Four of the ambassadors represent Northwest Alaska: Grace Ongtowasruk of Teller, Esau Sinnok and Sam Tocktoo of Shismaref and Jannelle Trowbridge of Nome.
The ambassadors are nominated for the position, and throughout their tenures are expected to share their opinions and experiences regarding the changing arctic in a variety of settings. The ambassadors also have the opportunity to attend and participate in presentations and conferences by the Arctic Council. Last month, the ambassadors heard various intergovernmental groups speak about some of Alaska’s economic and environmental issues.
The mandatory meeting last month was the first time all of the ambassadors were in the same room.
Nome’s Janelle Trowbridge said that the main focus of the summit was to help the ambassadors to understand what their role is. “I think the most important thing I absorbed during the conference is what we as Arctic Youth Ambassadors are all about. We gathered together and eagerly shared our stories,” she said. Both Trowbridge and Tocktoo mentioned the value of making connections with other youth from across the state.
“The conference [in] Anchorage was very fascinating and the other ambassadors and I learned lots more about Alaska and how climate change is affecting it,” Tocktoo said. The ambassadors got to know each other and hear the different perspectives from around the state. Trowbridge said the she and her fellow ambassadors have “a good mix of cultural backgrounds.” Though they come from different areas around the state, they are all working for a common goal. “Our problems are the same because climate change affects everyone,” said Tocktoo. Along with learning about each other, the ambassadors learned how to best inform other people about climate change.
Last December, Esau Sinnok had the opportunity to travel to Paris to attend the 21st United Nations Conference of Parties (COP 21) as a delegate for the Sierra Club. Although he did not have the authority to attend the meetings in Paris, Sinnok did gain national notoriety after he was interviewed by countless publications. Sinnok, in an interview with the Nome Nugget, said that he thought it was important for him, a young Alaskan, to raise awareness about the effects of climate change because he had seen its effects first hand.
Throughout his 18 years, Sinnok has seen changes on, and to, his home island of Sarichef. He knows it is too late to save his hometown, which will probably be completely underwater by 2035, but Sinnok believes that it is not too late to save his culture. “I hope that world leaders will hear my message and rise to the challenge because it is not just a political issue to me. It’s my future,” Sinnok wrote in a blog post on the U.S. Department of the Interior website. This same fear of, and hope for, the future led the current University of Alaska Fairbanks student to the Arctic Youth Ambassador Program.
Jannelle Trowbridge is originally from Michigan, but she has spent the past six years in Nome. The Trowbridge family’s route to Alaska was anything but ordinary. The family of four left Michigan and sailed through the Northwest Passage in a 30-foot wooden sailboat, eventually landing in Nome. “It’s the places like Greenland and Nome where you see and experience the wildlife and you become aware of [the environment’s] delicate and intricate balance,” said Trowbridge.
Trowbridge traces her interest in the environment back to her childhood days in Michigan. She and her sister spent hours outside and on her family’s sailboat, where they were exposed to different types of wildlife. After the Trowbridges sailed to Nome, Jannelle took up dog mushing, a sport she says brought her closer to her environment. “I became very aware and attentive to the snow and the weather,” she said.
Last summer, 18 year-old Trowbridge participated in the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program or ANSEP. ANSEP worked with the U.S. Geological survey to allow Trowbridge to be a summer intern. The University of Alaska Anchorage freshman collected bivalves, more commonly known as clams, on the Chukchi Sea.
Trowbridge said she wanted to be an ambassador to gain knowledge in her field of interest: science. “As someone in the biological sciences field I am also a total advocate of science. We need to know what’s happening in our environment, what changes are happening, and how the ecosystems are adapting or how it’s corrupting them. We need to continue that research. We need youth involved with the science and the needs of our state.” Trowbridge believes it is important for Alaska’s youth to be exposed to the state’s problems so that they will be equipped to manage them in the future.
Sam Tocktoo, 17, is a student at Shishmaref High School. Tocktoo worked with Alaska Geographic and the National Park Service to create a video project about yellow-billed loons, which U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classifies as a species of concern. During the project, Tocktoo flew around the state taking photos and video clips of yellow-billed loons.
Tocktoo became involved with the Arctic Youth Ambassador program after working with Alaska Geographic on the video project. “The project I did with Alaska Geographic and National Park Service was a great experience for me because I meet new people and it taught me more how humans are affecting the animals we live around,” Tocktoo said.
As an ambassador, he hopes to help reduce the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere. Tocktoo also wants to protect his home village of Shishmaref by slowing the rate of erosion of Sarichef Island. “Our island is eroding away and we [built] a seawall but who knows how much longer it will last,” Tocktoo said.
Grace Ongtowasruk, 17, is a high school senior from Teller. She is also a member of the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action group, which campaigned to state legislators to reduce Alaska’s carbon levels by 30 percent by 2030. On her Arctic Youth Ambassador profile, Ongtowasruk said she is interested in environmentalism because “[The earth] is our only home and we are destroying it.”
The Arctic Youth Ambassador program is organized by Alaska Geographic Field Institution, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska, and the U.S. Department of State. According to the Alaska Geographic website, “The Arctic Youth Ambassadors is one group of knowledgeable youth from across the state who understand the Arctic and its people and can explain it from a youth perspective for their peers across the United States and around the world.”