CIRI shareholder Kyla Morris (Unangan) works with a “small but mighty team.” With a staff of only nine employees, The CIRI Foundation (TCF) is committed to changing the lives of its Alaska Native beneficiaries through scholarships, vocational training grants and individual fellowships, and through funding heritage and other education projects. Since its establishment in 1982 by the CIRI Board of Directors, TCF has contributed more than $33 million to the educational and cultural pursuits of CIRI shareholders and the descendants of original CIRI enrollees.
Kyla didn’t set out to “help Alaska Native people achieve their educational dreams.” In fact, it was a CIRI summer internship that changed her career trajectory. “I had enrolled in college out of high school at the University of Alaska Anchorage and I didn’t really have a clear path,” Kyla recalled. “I’d been at UAA for two years and was really just focused on completing my general education requirements. The summer of 2007, through a summer internship with First Alaskans Institute, I was placed in CIRI’s Corporate Communications department. I absolutely loved it. In fact, I remember interviewing someone for a Shareholder Spotlight—I was so nervous! But I enjoyed the work so much.”
After that summer, Kyla transferred to the University of Oregon and completed a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She returned home to Alaska after graduation and landed a job with Southcentral Foundation as a public relations specialist.
Kyla confessed that her career with TCF, now in its sixth year, almost didn’t happen. “Since I had received education funds through TCF, I was on their email notification list. When a notification for an open position (program officer) came through I was immediately interested, but it sounded like a big job for me. Luckily, I was able to chat with Susan Anderson (TCF’s president and CEO), who told me what the job was like and encouraged me to apply.”
Kyla has been with TCF since 2013 and was recently promoted to vice president and director of programs, where she oversees TCF’s programing and operations; works closely with the individual post-secondary scholarship and grant program; and helps manage project grants, which are offered to nonprofit organizations, tribal organizations and individuals. “Of course, being part of a small nonprofit, I do a little bit of everything,” she said. “With two scholarship deadlines, four vocational training deadlines and four project grant deadlines annually, we’re busy year-round serving 500-600 applicants and numerous organizations.
“My position is unique in that it really allows me to work with our individual students—chat with them, hear their stories and help them get to where they need to be—but I also get to think about, what does TCF want to do long term? How can we make these programs better serve our people? What are our people maybe needing now that was different before?” Kyla continued. “I think it’s a benefit to being at a small nonprofit that I get to do a bit of everything.”
In addition to fielding the demands of a full-time job, Kyla recently received a master’s degree in communication and leadership from Gonzaga University. “When I graduated from college, I always thought I might go back for a postgraduate degree. But as the years went on, it started to feel like this huge, scary thing. Your master’s degree, it feels really personal. Plus, working full time and attending school full time, I didn’t know if I could pull it off,” Kyla said. “But my parents and Susan really encouraged me to pursue it and gave me the confidence that I could make it happen. A lot of TCF’s team members work and go to school at the same time, so it made it seem like much more of a realistic and achievable dream.”
Kyla is passionate about TCF’s mission of helping Alaska Native people achieve individual self-development and economic self-sufficiency through education. “There’s a ton of information on the TCF website, but I always encourage people to call us to find out what opportunities are out there,” she said. “I think a lot of folks are aware of TCF and the types of funding we offer, but we do come across people who didn’t know they were eligible because they made assumptions, like you have to be an original CIRI shareholder, or we only fund people who just graduated from high school or we only give college scholarships. While we do a fair amount of outreach, it’s disheartening when we hear, ‘I only went for a two-year degree, so I didn’t think I was eligible.’ We want people to reach out and ask us the questions. Even if you’re not eligible for TCF funding, we’ll try to connect you with another foundation or program you may be eligible for. We’re a hub; nobody leaves empty handed.”
When she’s not working, Kyla enjoys spending time in the great Alaska outdoors—cross-country skiing, fishing, hiking and spending time at her family’s cabin. She hopes to one day visit the land and learn the language of her ancestors. “The maternal side of my family hails from St. Paul (an island located in the central Bering Sea within the Pribilof Islands),” Kyla said. “TCF is always looking for opportunities to connect people with their heritage and traditions, and with that in mind, I would love to learn the language. I think that will be a goal for me—to find someone who can take the time to teach me. I definitely feel connected to my Alaska Native culture, but I feel like I could be more connected.” She pauses, then brightens. “I’ve never been to St. Paul, but my mom and I are planning a trip!”