CIRI Spotlight: Sheila Sweetsir

Sheila Lynn Sweetsir is a mother, wife, proud CIRI shareholder, dedicated elementary school teacher with the Anchorage School District and an aspiring school principal. The 36-year-old was recently honored and recognized for her many achievements by being named to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce “Top 40 Under 40” program.

The program was created by the Chamber and the Alaska Journal of Commerce to recognize the state’s top young professionals who have demonstrated professional excellence and a commitment to their community.

Sweetsir is Athabascan and Caucasian and grew up in the Yukon River village of Galena with her mother. She earned her bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) and her master’s degree in reading and literacy from Walden University. She is currently attending UAA to get her principal’s certificate and will graduate in May 2010.

Sweetsir credits some of her early teachers with inspiring her to pursue an education: “I had some amazing teachers in Galena all through my school years. Marylee Kauffman was my sixth grade teacher and a great inspiration to me. She made learning fun and pushed us in our learning.

“After high school I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had no money and wasn’t sure if I could afford to attend college. I just had a baby and was working part time in Galena. My aunt always told me that I needed to go to college. She said it every time I saw her. I took out a loan and took a few classes in Fairbanks and then eventually moved to Anchorage and attended full-time until I graduated from UAA. My aunt came up from Oregon for my graduation.”

She said the joys of teaching are seeing the children come in at the beginning of the year and seeing how much they learn from month to month.

“First grade students have to make huge gains throughout the year and have one of the biggest jumps in reading. It still amazes me how much they have to learn before the end of the year. It puts a smile on my face to see how much they learn and grow throughout the year,” she said.

“Teaching requires a lot of time and dedication but it’s what’s necessary in order to be an effective teacher. We get 20 to 26 students each year, and each of them comes in with varying experiences in education. We take each student and learn about their needs, push them to succeed in school and prepare them for the next grade, and all the while meeting their emotional, physical, and social needs.”

Sweetsir said she is proud to be a CIRI shareholder. “I received my shares from my father, the late Benny Andrews. Ever since I started attending college in Anchorage, CIRI has been a huge support to me financially. I am proud to thank them for their support.

“I’ve often said that through their generosity and support I’d give back to the Native community. Volunteering these past three years to help start a Native charter school here in Anchorage and advocating for Native students is my way of saying thank you to CIRI.”

Sweetsir said that she does not take being a CIRI shareholder lightly.

“I am proud to be a shareholder because of my father’s shares. I would like to make him proud of what I am doing and with their support I am able to attend school. Being a shareholder gives me a sense of belonging. I feel more grounded in who I am.”

Sweetsir said her husband, James Sweetsir, works on the North Slope in the oil field and is gone two weeks at a time.

“The kids and I have to make the best of it when he’s gone. We have a regular routine. Each week is generally the same. We have Boy Scouts on Wednesdays, soccer on Saturdays and homework during the week. I volunteer every week for the charter school on Monday nights, teach, attend an online UAA course on Thursdays, and do something fun on the weekend.”

“When my husband is home we go to the cabin and snowmachine and hang out. It’s our little ‘village’ getaway from the city. The kids can play outside and drive around on snowmachines like in the village. It’s a lot of playing games, cooking, and watching movies. It’s all about family time when we are there,” she said.

Sweetsir said her advice to young people is to have a dream and pursue it.

“You may decide on a college, vocational education, armed services, or some type of training, but an education is important in today’s society. Finding one person that is supportive and encourages you is important as well, whether it’s a school counselor, grandparent, family friend or a relative it will be helpful when you need that extra push or someone to listen to you because at times it can be very frustrating and hard. Going to school and not having money or even family at times can be difficult as well, but you need to remember your dream and the goals you set for yourself.”

Sweetsir said her aunt Arlene Selden always encouraged her to go to school. “She continues to ask me how I am doing in school today even though I am an adult, married and have kids.”

She said she shares with her own children and her two sisters the importance of attending school and getting a quality education, just as she’s had supportive people in her life do the same.