Photo courtesy of Autumn Olson.
Photo courtesy of Autumn Olson.

Autumn Olson has some advice for young people interested in applying for CIRI’s summer internship. “Do it. If you’re on the fence, go over the fence. Even if you don’t want to go into business, still do it. You learn a lot of real-life skills. It’s extremely beneficial. Be open to the opportunity. There are so many people who will believe in you and inspire you.”

Autumn would know. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Washington in Seattle, she secured a position as a CIRI summer intern where her skills were put to good use in CIRI’s Human Resources (HR) department.

“The internship is really jam-packed, and it’s really hands on,” she said. “There are so many opportunities to learn and grow, and I did a tons of things in HR – recruitment, onboarding, systems testing. It was really cool for me to see all these business practices and to see how CIRI’s values are put into practice in everything we do.”

A CIRI shareholder of Iñupiaq descent, Autumn is connected to CIRI through her mother, Vickie Kalerak of Nome, Alaska; her father, who hails from the Pacific Northwest, is of Norwegian ancestry. Growing up in Seattle, Autumn said she was aware of her Alaska Native heritage but didn’t have many direct ties to her culture.

“I had sealskin slippers. We always had smoked salmon; we called it Eskimo candy. I would wear my kuspuk. Little things like that,” she said. “We actually lived in Anchorage for a year when I was 9 years old, and my mom worked at CIRI. As I got older, I started reading the Raven’s Circle newsletter but I didn’t know much beyond that. I really wanted to know more about CIRI, the business aspect of it, and I wanted to understand my culture. This internship provided the perfect opportunity.”

In addition to job-related duties, CIRI summer interns participate in a number of workshops and activities. This summer, First Alaskans Institute hosted a leadership discussion that included Alaska Native dancing, drumming and singing. It was a new experience for Autumn.

“It wasn’t about how good you were – they were just inviting us to participate. It was kind of awkward at first, but we really got into it!” she said. “We also had leadership discussions – what we can do within our families and communities to reach a whole and healthy state of being.”

Another highlight of the internship was a tour of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, followed by a workshop. The interns learned beadwork and attended an Iñupiaq language immersion class. Lunch centered on traditional Alaska Native foods like caribou stew, muktuk and sheefish.

“During the tour we saw replicas of Iñupiaq homes, which were built partly underground,” Autumn said. “The openings were really narrow, and I learned that the openings of real Iñupiaq homes were even narrower since they had keep out polar bears. I just thought, ‘Wow, my family was so hardcore, crawling in out of these narrow, dark tunnels all day!’ It just drove home how resilient and creative the Alaska Native people are.”

Those qualities were passed down to Autumn. Despite graduating from a top university and forging a promising start to her professional career, she has experienced her share of hardships. Family members have struggled with illness and addiction. She was homeless for a time. “It’s been challenging,” she admits. “I relied on Jesus and a lot of prayer.”

And plenty of hard work.

“In high school, I made a firm decision that education is really important,” she said. “I put it in my mind and was really determined. I had a lot of really great mentors at school, particularly a math teacher. I would go to school at 7 a.m. and get home at 5:30 p.m. I would stay at school to do homework and ask a million questions.”

It’s a strategy that worked.

“I started out in beginning math, and by my senior year I was in AP statistics,” she said. “It speaks to the power of having people in your life who invest their time, push you, challenge you.”

As for the future, Autumn has plans for medical school. She would like to parlay her degree in psychology into a career as a psychiatrist. The CIRI internship gets her off to a good start.

“The staff members, they want to give you opportunities to learn and grow. The cultural opportunities will push you too. It’s a super meaningful experience; you’ll form life-long friendships with the other interns. Everyone at CIRI is eager to share knowledge and what they’ve learned along the way. I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”

CIRI’s Summer Internship Program creates opportunities for students and recent graduates to directly apply their education in a practical work setting while gaining excellent experience and insight into CIRI’s culture and businesses. The 12-week paid internship runs from June through August. The application period is open year round. To be considered for the 2018 program, applications must be received by May 11, 2018. For more information, visit