Q and A Conversation with Teisha Simmons: Gryffindor

Headshot of Teisha Simmons, UAF Interior-Aleutians Campus Director

As a part of the Q and A series with university officials, each person will be asked to take a "sorting hat" personality test for fun and good measure. See below for results.

Interview conducted and written by Rachel Voris

On first impression, Teisha Simmons is kind and focused. As director of the Interior-Aleutians Campus, Simmons is busy meeting the needs of rural students while guiding her staff and faculty using a cooperative leadership style. If that was all there was to know about Simmons, it would be enough. But her rich background, packed with stories of incredible adversity, pieces of the Koyukon Athabascan language and a long list of service awards, make Simmons a well-respected, well-liked and admirable UA leader.

Teisha with her older sister Tiffany as kids in Galena on Tiffany's first day of school. Teisha was upset because she was still too young to go to school.

From the Village to Fairbanks

Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like to grow up in Galena?

When I think of being a kid in Galena, I think of walking down the dirt roads. Every car that passes waves at you, regardless of who it is, everyone waves. At that time there was not as much technology, so we were building forts out of wood for the wood stove. We had lots of freedom because my mom always knew everyone in town. If we did anything wrong, she would quickly find out. There were a lot of community events, which is probably where my sense of community and community responsibility comes from. When something happens in a village, it affects everyone. The community completely comes together.

Galena has shaped who I am. I’m really passionate about language revitalization, song revitalization, and those kinds of grass roots efforts, as well as suicide prevention. I think we should all be passionate about something. If we’re passionate about it, we will be moved to work towards the good of the cause.

A lot of this burning drive was shaped by my mother. Along with my sister, I was raised by a single mother and it was not uncommon for us to be chopping and hauling wood, trying to thaw out the water and sewer tanks, ripping out the living room carpet to put in a new one. Because of those experiences, not too many things challenge me. My sister and I will both usually look at something that is challenging and right away think, ‘we could probably fix that, but how are we going to do it?’ Many of the city luxuries are not available in the village, so when something goes wrong or needs to be done, you just have to roll up your sleeves and tackle it. For us, it was a single mother and her two young daughters doing it.

Simmons as a child during her first dog sled race.

Tell me about language revitalization and suicide prevention. Are you passionate about this because of experiences you’ve had?

I’m passionate because the language is at risk of dying. Right now, I know of very few people under the age of 50 who I would consider a fluent speaker of the Koyukon Athabascan language. The words I know are from when I was a kid, ‘sit down, be quiet, be still, don’t touch that.’ Thinking that the language that my grandma spoke might not be in existence in 50 more years is a scary thought. Thankfully, there is a lot going on right now for language revitalization. Even in the past year, I have seen the efforts just skyrocket. Before it was just little grass roots groups of people listening to cds and trying to learn that way. Learning the language is a powerful experience. My grandmother was a fluent speaker, but my mom wasn’t because she grew up in a boarding school. It’s a powerful thing to know that you are speaking your grandparents’ language and a language that is on the verge of becoming extinct.

I’m passionate about suicide prevention because it shouldn’t be normal that someone knows so many people who have committed suicide in their lifetime. When I was 19, I received a call that someone I knew died. I was shocked that they died, blown away. But I found out it was because of suicide, it felt natural, as if that was a natural way of dying. That night I realized suicide is not cancer, a car accident, or a heart attack. I should have been shocked that the person died and that they took their own life. At that moment, it became an important cause to me, which is why I pursued a degree in psychology.

Simmons as a child celebrating Fourth of July in Galena.

What do you enjoy doing for fun?

I love doing whatever my daughter is doing. As long as she’s involved, it’s always fun. I really love to read and be involved with my church. My faith is important to me and I really enjoy it. I love summer and hot weather. I’m always freezing, so I start looking forward to summer the day it ends.

This is sort of a rough place to live for people who love hot weather.

Yes, but I could never leave. Never. I love Fairbanks.

When did you move to Fairbanks?

I moved to Fairbanks in August 1992 after my car accident. I was in Fairbanks for a month in ICU, then Seattle for six months. Then my family moved to Fairbanks and we’ve lived here ever since.

The Life Changing Decision

Can you tell me about your car accident? I understand it left you paralyzed from the shoulders down.

I was a young and stupid teenager that didn’t listen to her mother. I was actually getting ready to head to Anchorage to go to high school, just to get out of my little wild rut I had found myself in. The accident happened the day before I was going to move. I was in the car with my sister and our two cousins who were practically sisters. We were jetting around in my grandpa’s car when we shouldn’t have been. We told him we were going to my mom’s house to bake, which sounds corny now, and we decided we would go for a ride around town. There is very soft gravel on the side of the dirt road and we were listening to music loud and talking—doing all the things in the car you shouldn’t be doing—and we ended up flipping the car over. It flipped over onto it’s top into about four feet of water. I remember realizing that we were going to crash and knowing it was really bad. I knew we would be in a ton of trouble with grandpa. It just happened so quickly. All of the sudden we were under water.

I’ve always been calm. If there was a plane crash, I would be the calm person directing others. I’ve been a quick thinker when it comes to scary things happening. I remember opening my eyes and being under water. I was thinking that we had to get out of the car, and I saw the door. I was going to flip myself over and go to the door and make sure everyone got out. It was bright outside, and I could see my arms under the water. I was going to reach over and open the door. I felt like my arm was moving, but I could still see it sitting in the place. I knew something was wrong and realized I probably broke my neck. I knew I was stuck under the water and the other girls would have to get me out quickly. They were flipping themselves over to get to the little bit of air at the top of the car, and they eventually realized I wasn’t there. My sister put her legs forward and her feet around my neck and pulled me out of the water and my cousin helped her.

It was scary. There was point I was under water, expecting them to get me, and they weren’t. It felt like a long time. I remember thinking that I would try to blow bubbles so they could see me, but of course, when you’re underwater you have to inhale air to do that, so that didn’t work. It came to me that I probably wouldn’t live through the experience. I told myself I wasn’t going to make it. I had a friend who drowned in a lake a year before. Once I quit panicking and accepted that I wasn’t going to make it, I was very relaxed. It wasn’t like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It was just murky water with some light coming through. I remember thinking, everyone has to die and it’s just my time. I remember wishing that I could live through it so I could tell my friend’s parents that he didn’t suffer when he drowned. After he drowned the previous summer, I remember looking at the lake and thinking how terrible it would be to be conscious and be under water, knowing you are going to die. I just couldn’t get it out of my head that he had to suffer in his mind terribly. When I was under the water, I was just wishing I could tell his parents that he didn’t suffer. It was peaceful. Then, all the sudden, they ripped me out of the car. My sister was freaking out because I wasn’t moving. She thought I had died. I started talking to her and telling the others to flag down a car. I told everyone to be quiet while I tried to move my arm. I was really trying, and they were watching, but I could only get it to move slightly. I kept saying, ‘I think I broke my neck,’ but I was only 15 and didn’t know enough to not move my neck. They asked if I could move my head, and I did.

I was so young and nave at the time. I thought they would send me to FMH (Fairbanks Memorial Hospital), fix me in a couple of weeks, and then I could go back to school. I didn’t want the medical officials to cut off the jeans I was wearing since I had borrowed them from my sister and knew she would be mad. The next thing I know, I wake up in ICU and have a ventilator in my neck. I broke my neck right at the level where it is iffy if your lung muscles will work. The journey went from there.

I went from ICU to Seattle. I hated, absolutely hated, being in a wheel chair for years. I’ve seen some people who seem to make it through an injury and bounce right back. That was not me. I was in a very dark place for years. I wasn’t going to go back to school. After six months in Seattle, we returned to Fairbanks to live. A friend encouraged me to try Howard Luke School. I tried two classes in one semester. It was like I had life breathed back into me. I forgot how much I loved school. There was good enough technology to use my own computer to type my own papers, even though I had limited movement. I knew from there I was going to college.

I had to do a lot of self-exploring to figure out who I was. I realized it was okay I wasn’t like everyone else. I accepted that I was in a wheel chair but knew it didn’t define me. I figured out what it meant to be an Alaska Native woman and how I wanted to bridge the gap between my mom, my grandmother and I. My culture became very important to me, knowing that my mom grew up in a boarding school. Sometimes boarding schools back then were very abusive. How do I take her experiences and learn from them? My grandmother grew up in a tent and never went to school. I pulled from those experiences and figured out who I was.

Have you been back to Galena since the accident?

I have, but I don’t go back as much as I wish to. As I’ve gotten older, it’s harder for me to physically get around and be carried up and down off a plane and in and out of vehicles and on dirt roads. If I could have wheel chair ramps in more places and paved roads, I would do it in a second. Culture can be infused anywhere though. Just because we aren’t in Galena doesn’t mean that parts of Galena can’t be brought here.

One of the best experiences I’ve ever had in Fairbanks was when we decided to do a Halloween carnival for Alaska Native kids while I worked at the Children’s Mental Health Organization. If you go to the village around Halloween and ask people what they are doing, everyone will have the same answer—go to the carnival. In Fairbanks, if you ask people, everyone has a different answer. We decided to do a Halloween carnival in Fairbanks just like one that would be done in the villages. We held it in the tribal hall and about 350 people showed up. People said it was the first time they felt like they were in the village again. Any event that can be done that brings people together makes it possible to feel like there is a sense of the village here.

What is one of your personal goals?

My number one goal is really to be the best parent that I could possibly be. I have had a habit, bad habit, of taking on too much. Whether it’s volunteer or board positions, I tend to get very passionate and want to be involved and fill every role. Lately, I’ve been really pruning what I do and making sure that I am very strategic with my time and what I commit to. Right now, I’m getting ready for my final Doyon Limited board meeting. It was a tough decision not to run again, but I feel good about where the corporation is right now. I was on Doyon Limited, Doyon Foundation, and the Interior Regional Housing Authority (IRHA) board. I am done with IRHA and almost done with my term at Doyon Limited.

Simmons with her daughter Tassy.

Can you tell me more about your daughter and what it’s like to be a parent?

I never planned on being a parent. I was always a big traveller. I wanted to travel to every state and see the world. My sister was very different. I’m always out and about doing things and advocating for different causes. I wanted to be a mom, but I wanted my own life still and to travel, go to movies and do things. The minute I became a mother, the minute I saw her, everything changed. I was very prideful throughout my pregnancy thinking I wasn’t going to be one of those moms who never travels anymore because of missing the kids. Now, I’m not willing to spend a ton of time travelling away from my daughter. I don’t even want to go to Anchorage because I want to be there for my daughter after school. Until you become a parent, you just don’t understand that new depth of love. It’s been an amazing journey with Tassy. She’s in second grade now.

I read an article about you recently in the News Miner about receiving Sandy Parnell’s Volunteer of the Year Award. How did you feel receiving it?

I was a little uncomfortable getting the award. To me personally, volunteering isn’t something that is an extra special effort someone does. It’s just something people do, and if they don’t, they should. I felt kind of weird accepting an award for doing something that I feel like is natural. I love to help others and have been in the position where others have helped me. When I was in the car accident, there was a fundraiser for me in my hometown of Galena. Because of that, my mom and my sister were able to stop working and live in Seattle with me in the Ronald McDonald house for six months. The fundraiser fully supported them for six months during that time. I never think I should help people because I was helped once. It’s just something that is natural.

Simmons' daughter Tassy with her great grandmother, late Jennie Huntington

Becoming A Leader

How do you go from pursuing a degree in psychology to where you are at now, as a campus director?

I came to this point because I could learn from mistakes I made and grow from them. In my first position, I was 24 overseeing a staff of 25 people. There was nothing like hitting the ground running and learning from that experience. I was working as a director for Children’s Mental Health Organization that served Alaska Native children in Fairbanks and in six villages. From there, when I found out I was expecting my daughter; I knew I couldn’t fulfill the requirements of that job anymore because it required extensive travel. To really do the job, and to serve six villages, you needed to be able to be there with the people in the villages a lot and to travel out of state just as much for meetings. There was no way I could give me all to the position and give my all to being a mom, so I resigned.

Teisha graduating with a bachelor's degree in psycology from UAF with her mother Marie Simmons, grandfather Sidney Huntington, and late grandmother Jennie Huntington.

A position at the UAF psychology department had just opened. It was a position to recruit Alaska Native people into the field of psychology at UAF to meet the needs of behavioral health providers in the villages. I moved from that position to a faculty position with Rural Human Services. My heart has always been in rural Alaska. If I could move back home, I would in a second. I thought, what better way for me to give back to rural Alaska, to be involved, than be the teacher in the classroom with the students who are on the ground out there? I had taught some adjunct psych courses, so I had a little bit of confidence going into it. I remember going to classes at UAF. There were some classes where I was so excited and so inspired, I couldn’t wait to get out of class and put the things I was learning into practice. That was my goal going into teaching.

While I was teaching at RHS, the program manager resigned and I started picking up some of those duties here and there. Pretty soon, people told me I should take the position. I didn’t want to give up teaching fulltime because I loved student interaction, so I was teaching a few classes and was acting as the program manager. At that point, Bernice Joseph (Vice Chancellor for Rural, Community and Native Education) and I started interacting, as she was the oversight for that position. I guess I did a pretty good job. When this position opened, she asked me if I would be interested in filling in for this position. I was interim November 2011 through March 2012.

What makes I-AC different from other community campuses?

All campuses have differences and similarities. One thing that is natural to us is delivering courses in ways outside of the box. Just one example would be Kevin Illingworth, assistant professor of the Tribal Management program. He is always willing to deliver education in a way that fits best for the student and communities. Right now, Kevin will travel out to communities to deliver courses. Once other tribes hear about that, they want Kevin to travel to them as well. It grows and suddenly there may be 250 tribes requesting Kevin travel to their community. Because of that, we decided to deliver the courses through audio conference and online, then all those people could call into a class with Kevin. That doesn’t necessarily work for our communities though. People in rural Alaska are busy and most tend to learn the best way through interactive and practical education. The majority of our courses offer a hands-on, experiential approach to learning. Also, if it’s hunting season, people won’t call in for four weeks because they are trying to get a moose. We know that here. We won’t schedule something during that time because it would be a waste. If there is a funeral, it’s a guarantee we won’t hear from that student for a week. All of our faculty are sensitive to these things and set up classes and work with the students in a way that allows for both high quality education delivery and student success.

Now, we are rethinking how we deliver the tribal management program. We are going to have the Tribal Management Institute where people interested in the program from across the state can travel to Fairbanks for one to three week sessions throughout the year so they can receive the tribal management certificate in one year in the delivery format that works best for them. The second year they travel here they receive an associates degree. We are looking at doing more intensives like this in Fairbanks.

We also have blended delivery, where we have two-day face-to-face audio conferences. We do audio delivery through the semester and then have two-day conferences where students come to our campus and learn. Our faculty will also travel to villages, people travel here for intensives, we do audio conferences, offer online courses, and we have even held classes at Howard Luke’s camp sometimes. We really work to create a delivery method that is successful for the people we are serving. It’s what makes us unique. When other people talk about distance learning, they are talking about e-Learning. While we might offer an e-Learning course, we will also offer courses in a variety of other ways.

On tour at I-AC, President Gamble, Teisha Simmons and staff discuss current trends in education, specifically in terms of mathematics distance delivery at I-AC.

What are goals you have right now, for the campus and for yourself?

For the campus, my biggest goal is marketing. In all honesty, I didn’t even really know what Interior-Aleutians Campus did. I wasn’t aware of these things until I was here, overseeing it all. It’s not because information wasn’t available, but I don’t think it was accessible in the right medium. I-AC does amazing things. If we could get that out to every single village in a way that the people found exciting, it would be good. We have to figure out what the stigmas are against higher education and battle it with accurate knowledge.

One of the biggest stigmas we come across is people thinking they aren’t college material. Even at my first day at UAF, my sister showed me around and was very excited about it. Even though I graduated as salutatorian of my high school across the street, I wasn’t sure I was ready. I thought about waiting because I worried I wasn’t smart enough. My sister taught me that people don’t come to college to be already smart. The professor will teach students and guide them to the information. All it takes as a student is dedication and commitment. People don’t walk in the door knowing all the answers. I took that to heart. It meant a lot of sacrifice on my part, and I share that with students who have the same initial fears.

What is something you find difficult about this position?

Administration can be very difficult and very stressful if you aren’t comfortable having difficult conversations with people. Being honest and clear with people is key, as well as getting people involved in decision-making. No one wants to make a huge change if they haven’t been involved with the change and asked for input. I work with amazing people, and I couldn’t do this position without their input. I take all of their great ideas and put them on paper and communicate them to others .

Supervision is also key when issues arise. I invite staff into my office, address issues and discuss expectations and then we both are on the same page. It’s not always comfortable, but it is part of life.

Giving positive feedback is equally important. I make sure to let people know when they are doing a great job. I love it when someone tells me I’m doing a good job. It gives me the motivation to keep doing it for another six months. Keep the people you have working for you happy, informed and let them be a part of what is happening in the workplace.

This is one of the classrooms in UAF's Interior-Aleutians Campus used to deliver distance education. Cameras are set in the science lab so instructors can perform experiments while rural students get access to a lab that isn't in a village. The classroom is also used at times when students travel to the campus for classes.

What’s one of your greatest challenges as a campus?

I don’t really think of these things as challenges, more like opportunities. One challenge is 80 percent of the regions we serve, the real people living in those communities, have no idea who we are. If they do know what I-AC is, they don’t really understand what I-AC could mean to them. We have elders in some classes. We have a full time math and English tutor to work with the students enrolled in our courses or living in our region. I would say that informing people is a challenge, but I really view this as an opportunity to get the word out. How do we make our online courses available to many people who don’t have Internet technology or any kind of broadband access yet? How do we balance getting information out to students, both those who have Internet and those who don’t? Getting the information about the many exciting opportunities available at our campus, that’s probably our biggest challenge.

What is one important thing people should know about I-AC?

If you want to take classes at UAF and you can think of a challenge or obstacle for why you can’t, we will help you discover ways to overcome those challenges. If somebody wants to pursue higher education, they should, even if not as a full time student. Progress is progress. We can help you get there regardless of the issue. If the issue is funding, we will help you explore funding opportunities. If it’s time, we have a student success coordinator who will work with you on time management. There may be one person who wants to get a tribal management degree, but they sit on the tribal council, are involved with the school, they host fundraisers and small group activities, maybe they are parents, whatever the case, time is a big obstacle for people. But we really work with people and their schedules to make school possible.

What do you enjoy most about your position?

I love it when students are excited about their education. I had a student who wrote to me about taking classes and getting her life on track. I encouraged her and two days later, she came to my office and told me how excited she was and how it was the best thing in her life. She wanted to start reading the course material before class begun. I also love seeing students progress over time. Some students are really reluctant at first, but then two years later, they are totally different and feel very different about education and want to get additional degrees after they graduate. Seeing excitement in students is the number one thing I enjoy.

A Cinematic Snapshot of Teisha Simmons

After taking the Harry Potter sorting hat quiz, Simmons was sorted into the Gryffindor House. The Gryffindor emblem is the lion and the house prides itself on boldness, courage, daring choices and chivalry. Some other notable Gryffindors include Harry Potter, Albus Dumbledore and the Weasleys. Simmons agreed with the results of the quiz, but noted that these character attributes can create a stressful life, but it's always worth it in the end.
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