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  • Indian Country Today

    Building bridges for community

    By Renata Birkenbuel,


    Renata Birkenbuel

    Soon-to-be civil engineer Charitie Ropati, Yup’ ik and Samoan, plans to build bridges in more ways than one for her community back home in Kongiganak, Alaska.

    Reportedly the first Alaska Native to graduate from Columbia University in her chosen field, Ropati already has a key job lined up back home, working for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium .

    “I'm really excited and just incredibly honored,” Ropati told ICT on Friday about representing her state and tribe as the first graduate in the discipline.

    “But then also it was like, whoa, 'cause when you're from Alaska, you meet a lot of Native people, Native women especially who study engineering,” she said. “And so it felt almost heavy, but then I was like, ‘This is okay. Being the first means that there'll be more women and girls going into this in the future.’ And so that’s been my mindset.”

    She and 16 peers – more women than men – graduate Monday in Columbia’s civil engineering department since administration canceled the main-stage commencement following a intense weeks of sometimes violent Pro-Palestinian protests on campus.

    Related: Protests spread as finals and summer break approach

    Her civil engineering department will instead graduate off-campus at the Baker Athletics Complex 100 blocks north in Manhattan, where the Columbia Lions athletic teams compete.

    Serendipitously, the Senior Expo coincides with graduation this year, which thrills Ropati. Her team created a bridge and school design project focused on climate infrastructure for vulnerable communities in Alaska – not unlike what her first job will entail.

    “So I'm really excited that my family gets to see what we were working on. It's really cool. Despite everything, I think it's really important that we hold a celebration, but also acknowledge just everything that we've been seeing in the past couple weeks here at the university.”

    The design cannot be used for real-world projects because the team lacks further engineering credentials, but Ropati drew experience and pride from the class work.

    Ropati said when Columbia University President Minouche Shafik canceled the main commencement on the stunning campus, it was “a huge disappointment.”

    “And I also want to clarify that this is not at all the fault of my peers. These are my friends … protestors who are recognizing humanity,” she added. “It’s a very beautiful thing. But it's a result of an administration that has really shown me, honestly, this past year, but also especially this past semester, that they don't care about us. And I used to be really scared about saying that, but now that I'm about to graduate, I'm not scared to say that.”

    Negotiations between the administration and activist students have seemingly stalled as the semester wraps and summer looms.

    Ropati said she was involved in the protests in a supportive role, but for safety reasons did not want to give personal details. She remains safe and on track, but some of her protesting peers received suspension notices via email.

    “Not to mention seeing hundreds of NYPD come onto our campus with riot gear, just brutalizing students,” she added. “It (was) just so violent. It's something I never thought I would see here at the university.”

    Reportedly, many suspensions have been lifted, but some activist students remain on probation.

    “The Native students here on campus, I think we've done a really incredible job showing solidarity,” she said. “And the fact that we're nervous to say that we're showing solidarity is such an abhorrent thing to even say. You know, we should be able to say that confidently without any repercussions.”

    It’s been a “crazy” couple of weeks, she said. Columbia initiated student protests that spread to other college campuses nationwide.

    As for her career future, Ropati is no stranger to real-world leadership during her college years.

    An Indigenous scientist, scholar and climate activist, she represented the youth voice as the keynote speaker at the 2024 ECOSOC Youth Forum at the United Nations in April. Her speech highlights the urgency of taking action on climate change.

    Even as a young girl, Ropati knew she wanted to build bridges. Relationship building exists in her skill set, too.

    “I also owe this accomplishment to a really incredible STEM program in Alaska called the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program ,” she said. “I remember I didn't wanna join it at first 'cause I was like most 11-year-old kids, like, we just wanna go outside and have fun.”

    STEM is short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – all fields that previously, historically mostly males inhabited.

    Her mother encouraged her to join – a turning point in her young dreams.

    “I ended up really liking it and I ended up finding out I was really good at math and science and engineering. So I really owe the ANSEP … people in that program who have really supported me. I don't wanna start crying, but yeah, like everyone in that program is incredible.”

    Her entire family, including her Mother, a college graduate, will be in New York to celebrate with Ropati and to spend time touring the city on Mother’s Day.

    Fast-forward to graduation day – from one of the most elite schools in the United States.

    Ropati, whose given name is Uguvaaq, submitted her last final exam on Thursday. She now anxiously awaits her family’s arrival.

    New York is a far cry from her tiny Native village, which lies at the mouth of the Lower-Yukon Kuskokwim River in Southwest Alaska. But after quite an unexpected undergraduate ride, Ropati remains undaunted.

    “I am really excited to just be with my family, but especially my Mom and Dad. “I don't wanna start crying, but … I never thought I would be here. So it's exciting to see that I'm finally going to get my degree.”

    Note: Charitie Roparti is a climate advisor for ICT's climate desk

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