In our Storyteller profile series, we highlight the dreams, journeys and achievements of Doyon Foundation students, alumni and supporters. In this episode of Storyteller, we speak with Doyon Foundation alumna and former board member, Helena Jacobs. Helena, originally from Ruby, now lives in Anchorage with her husband and children. Helena double majored in anthropology and Spanish, and also received her Master’s in Public Policy. She is now a co-founder of the Alaska Native Birthworkers Community. You can watch or listen to Helena’s full profile, or read a transcript, with minor edits for clarity.          

JENNA SOMMER: Today in this episode of Storyteller, we are here with Helena Jacobs. Thank you so much, Lena, for joining us. To start, tell us a little about yourself, where you grew up and who your family is.

HELENA JACOBS: Helena Jacobs se’ooze’. Tlaa ologhe huts’enh ts’aadaanslet. Eenaa’e Dee Olin be’ooze’. Eetaa’e David Hoffman be’ooze’. Eenaa’e bedełnekaa, Lillian yeł Fred Olin yeł Loraine yeł John Honea hev’ooz gheelaa’. Eetaa’e bedełnekaa, George yeł Helen Hoffman hev’ooz gheelaa’.

Hi, I’m Lena Jacobs, my Denaakk’e name is Benozaadleyo. My mom’s Dee Olin, my dad is David Hoffman. My mom’s parents are the late Lillian and Fred Olin, and the late John and Lorraine Honea, and my dad’s parents are the late George and Helen Hoffman. I’m originally from Ruby, but I grew up all around the state and I live in Anchorage now with my husband, Torin, and our children.

JENNA SOMMER: Thank you. Tell us little bit about your educational journey.

HELENA JACOBS: I did my undergrad studies at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. I did a double major in anthropology because I was really interested in studying Indigenous cultures, and quickly ran out of all the courses that had to do anything with studying living Native cultures at that small school in Oregon. I ended up transferring home twice and did a semester at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a semester at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to take a bunch of classes in the Alaska Native studies department. My other degree was in Spanish because I had done a Rotary youth exchange program to Spain my last year of high school and learned the spoken language but wanted to learn how to write and read and what not. Then I went to grad school at the University of California, Berkeley, for a master’s in public policy.

JENNA SOMMER: Why did you choose that field of study?

HELENA JACOBS: I just explained a little bit about anthropology and Spanish. I knew when I went to school for those things that I wasn’t going to become an anthropologist for my profession. I knew I wasn’t going to become a Spanish teacher. I chose those two subjects because they just excited me and I really loved learning what I was learning and I chose that because it would keep me engaged in school and keep me enjoying school, but I knew I wasn’t going to do either of those things professionally. And what I really wanted to do, and I knew this from the beginning, when I first considered moving Outside for school, was that I wanted to come back to Alaska and I wanted to work in some capacity to serve our people and serve our community. I got involved with a couple of organizations that really focused on public policy and leadership development, and I thought that public policy would be an avenue for me to look at some of the systemic change that I thought needed to happen to really support the wellness and well-being of our communities. So I chose public policy and learned a lot about government structures and policies and systems, and learned about how to influence change in those areas. That’s one of the areas where I work now.

JENNA SOMMER: How did your education get you where you are today?

HELENA JACOBS: I feel like having the education that I had opened up a lot of doors for opportunity. I always feel like the best teachers that I have are the people at home who I get to work with and who teach me so much about how to be in our community and how to learn our values and uphold our values. Honestly, the best education I can say I received is from mentors in our community. But we know that having a piece of paper actually matters to meet the minimum qualifications for certain jobs and certain employment opportunities. I feel like going to school helped open certain doors for me to pursue employment. And being away from home for six years really instilled in me even more purpose and drive to take all of those tools back home and to use them at home. It deepened my commitment to being at home, because sometimes you don’t miss the good things until you don’t have it any more. So that was really important for me to have that experience, like that homesickness and that longing for everything that our community has that maybe I had taken for granted. Coming back home, it really helped drive me to find ways to reintegrate and work within the community.

JENNA SOMMER: Thank you. What was the biggest challenge you faced in your educational journey and how did you overcome it?

HELENA JACOBS: I got really homesick. When I went to Willamette, my older sister, Margaret, who is two years older than me, was going to the University of Portland, and she actually transferred to Willamette as a junior when I entered as a freshman. Having my older sister there was amazing. I loved being able to go to school with her and have family right there. I think if she weren’t there, I don’t know if I would have ended up staying.

Finding mentors on campus was also really helpful. I became really close with my academic adviser who was also the adviser for a Native student club that we created. Finding other Native students on campus and trying to build a community and build an awareness and a presence for Native students on campus really helped me feel a little more at home. And then challenging myself to learn about new cultures and new places and new people that I had never known about or been exposed to. I had a lot of fun meeting people from all over the world and just really getting involved on campus. I think student involvement really helped, and having our traditional foods really helped. I had people who would send me dry fish or dry moose meat, and I feel like every time I had those little care packages sent to me and having that little bit of home, it gave me that nourishment of the food itself, but also spiritual sustenance to be able to get through until my next break when I could come home and have all of that around a table with family in person.

JENNA SOMMER: Do you expect to continue your education in the future? If so, what are your plans?

HELENA JACOBS: I actually just finished a four-day training. A lot of the training that I’m looking into now applies directly to the work that I do as part of the Alaska Native Birthworkers Community. The trainings that I’m really excited about are things like the full spectrum Indigenous doula training and the Indigenous breastfeeding counselor training. The one that we just finished is the Indigenous childbirth educator training, and I love these educational opportunities that are designed by Native people, for Native people, and are open to Native people who are serving these roles in our communities. There were 34 Native women in this four-day training learning together, and I just loved it so much. I’m going to continue seeking those kinds of opportunities and learning to grow my own practice as a birthworker and a server in our communities.

JENNA SOMMER: That sounds amazing. Apart from school and work, what other activities or community involvement do you enjoy?

HELENA JACOBS: I’m a mother, I love spending time with my kids. My daughters love to bake and do crafts and play outside. We had an asynchronous learning day on Tuesday, and so we just made a whole fun day out of their learning at home. Any time that I am not spending directly involved with the duties of my job and any other community obligations, I’m spending time with my family or they’re coming along with me. They’re involved in a lot of the stuff that I do for work and community stuff too.

JENNA SOMMER: What kind of support did you receive from Doyon Foundation and how did it help you as a student?

HELENA JACOBS: I received scholarships from Doyon Foundation all throughout my undergrad and graduate school. I also would receive words of encouragement. Doyon Foundation actually is the first job that I had when I graduated from college, so Doyon Foundation played a huge role in helping boost my professional development and my learning. I feel like I learned so much at the Foundation and I was so grateful for the opportunity to join the team and learn the back end and get to reciprocate processing scholarships for other people and supporting the mission of the Foundation that had done so much to support me through school.

I also served on the Foundation board and that was a huge learning experience for me as well. That was the first time I had ever served on a nonprofit board, and I loved that opportunity so much. I loved the peers that I got to work with. I loved working with you and the staff. I learned so much from there, too. I feel like the Foundation offered me financial support, it offered me on-the-job training and learning in my first job after graduating, it offered me community development to learn how to serve on a board for our people. I feel like I’ve gained so much from this family.

JENNA SOMMER: Thank you so much. What role does your culture or Native language play in your life?

HELENA JACOBS: My kids and I practice our language every day; sometimes it’s just a handful of words that we know that have replaced our English words. We have little stickers around the house. During the pandemic, when Dewey and some other folks from the Foundation were hosting the regular Zooms, we incorporated that into their online learning, so we were learning, we were doing Denaakk’e together a couple of times a week. We’ve got all kinds of books that we look through together to learn words or read about stories. My girls are also Yupik and Iñupiaq on their dad’s side, and they go to the Yupik Immersion school here. So every day they’re immersed in their other heritage language and culture, and we really try to support that learning and make our home an environment where we’re practicing our languages, learning our languages, living our values, getting out on the land and the water, being in relationship with the animals and the plants, and trying to ourselves learn a lot of this as we’re teaching our children too. So it’s a daily pursuit of trying to be really thoughtful and intentional about living by our values and living and learning through our language. We could always do more of course, but there are a few things that we’ve tried to make part of our daily routine.

JENNA SOMMER: Thank you, that’s amazing. Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for students today?

HELENA JACOBS: Two of my kids are in college now, so I feel like I have these words of encouragement and advice probably weekly with my own kids. One of the things that I was sharing with one of my kids on a recent call is that the people who work and live on the campus are there because they really care about student success and they really want people who choose that campus to do well, and that it’s really important to reach out to those folks if you need additional resources. Don’t wait until you get that D or that F on the test to have that be the marker of “Okay, I could probably use some additional support.” Seek out, do kind of a survey of what the resources are for academic support, for social support, emotional support, spiritual support. So many campuses have invested so much into making sure that they’re building up their students for success that they have entire departments that exist just to support students. Don’t underestimate those resources and don’t feel shy about reaching out and taking advantage of that, it’s huge. I know that I needed that.

When you had asked about challenges, I mentioned homesickness, but another challenge that I had was, I thought that I was really well prepared for higher education and my first year was tough. I struggled, and I had always been a high-achieving student where I had to have A’s and B’s. Wwhen I didn’t get that, it was hard and I realized that I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was going to be, I really needed to seek out resources. So I started going to the writing lab, lining up tutoring, checking in regularly with my professors and just having really open communication about I’m struggling, what can I do? What resources do you have for me? What support can you offer? Even just sometimes having that open means of communication will help them to understand where you are and know that it’s not that you don’t care, it’s just that you need additional support. They might be willing to show more grace or more understanding and maybe offering an extension on a paper or something like that, as long as you are communicating with them and coming up with a plan together for success. So I guess to boil it down, it’s take advantage of the resources, and have good, open and consistent communication with your professors.

JENNA SOMMER: Thank you so much. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

HELENA JACOBS: I’m just so grateful for everything the Foundation has done and for all that you and the team do there to support students and to continue to engage alumni too. It feels nice to still be a part of what you guys are doing and continuing to support the mission, so thank you, baasee’.

JENNA SOMMER: Thank you, that means a lot. So I want to thank you so much for taking your time today and thank you for sharing your story with us.

HELENA JACOBS: Thank you so much. Take care.

For more Storyteller profiles, visit Or if you are interested in being featured in an upcoming Storyteller profile, or would like to nominate a Doyon Foundation student, alumni or supporter, please contact us at or 907.459.2048.