The first job Janelle Vanasse had was washing dishes in her family’s popular Bemidji restaurant, Noel’s.
“That was back when I was younger than I can remember,” she said.
She never imagined that she would become a college president. But that’s what happened earlier this year when Vanasse was chosen to lead Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.
“I certainly was raised to think I could do whatever I wished to do,” she said, “but at that time it wasn’t anything that I thought I could do. Absolutely not.”
Janelle said the spark for becoming an educator came when she was a student aide in the special education classroom at Bemidji High School.
“I was really given an opportunity to learn a lot about that,” said Vanasse, a 1986 BHS graduate. "I directly went into a program at St. Cloud State to become a special education teacher. It absolutely gave me that direction.”
Her first teaching job was in Wisconsin. But after two years, she got the urge to move to Alaska, where five of her six older brothers lived.
“My brothers, being adventurous, outdoorsy folks that northern Minnesota creates, several of them had come to Alaska,” she said. “So I kind of followed in their footsteps. I didn’t want to be left out.”
She moved there in 1993 and taught special education in Fairbanks.
“When that didn’t feel like an adventure enough I moved out to Bethel, Alaska, which is a rural, off-the-road community. I just found that to be a great place to live. It’s really tied with the Yup’ik culture, which is the indigenous culture in western Alaska. It was an opportunity for some personal and professional growth.”
Vanasse started as an itinerant teacher, traveling to the 23 small, secluded villages that the Lower Kuskokwim School District serves. Most days, she flew out of the Bethel airport to one of the villages in a Cessna 207 plane.
“If I had to stay overnight I’d sleep in a classroom in a sleeping bag, and fly back the next day,” she said. “That was a great way to take my job in a pretty adventurous way. The needs are great out there. It was really an opportunity for some personal and professional growth.”
She spent 20 years at Bethel, moving into administration and earning a master’s degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She also was the founding director of a regional training center for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Vanasse spent the last six years working as superintendent of Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka. As a first-generation college student herself, she has worked with many indigenous students who wanted to go to college and were usually the first in their families to do so.
“I really had a passion for trying to get them successfully transitioning into whatever their post-secondary plan was, and to elevate the opportunities, particularly for our Native and rural students,” she said in a recent interview with Alaska Public Media.
As president of Alaska Pacific University, Vanasse has a chance to help those students from the other side of that transition. The school’s enrollment last year was the highest in five years, and about one-fourth of the enrolled students were Alaska Native or American Indian.
“It’s just a really great place,” said Vanasse, who earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Gonzaga. “It’s a small university, but it uses that to our advantage. We’re really purposeful in the programs we develop, and in giving students individualized attention.
"An important thing that I need to do now is to find a way to make sure people know about us. We have a world-class outdoor studies program. We just had students who were floating the Yukon, and other students who were spending two weeks hiking a mountain.”
Vanasse and her husband, Kurt Kuhne, have two adult sons. Aidan, 24, is following in his mom’s footsteps as a teacher in Bethel, Alaska, and their son Jasper is 21.
“Then we have another son (Eeden Ross) who came to live with us when he was in high school,” she said. “Two boys that we raised, and then an extra son that we’re not letting go of. He’s part of our family.”
Vanasse remembers her Bemidji High School days fondly.
“I enjoyed school,” she said, “but I enjoyed myself as well. I made sure I had lots of fun. I also enjoyed being a fan at all the (sports) games.”
Vanasse has not lost her connection to Bemidji and to several friends she met at BHS. Two of her brothers have passed away, as have their parents, Noel and Geneva. One brother still lives in Alaska and the other three are in Minnesota.
“Growing up in Bemidji and growing up in our family meant hard work and just an appreciation of other people,” she added. “My parents were very much into service to their community and to their church. All of that has been pretty important to who I am.”