Brett Kirk, a NANA shareholder from Noatak, is a civil engineer in-training (EIT) for Kuna Engineering.
Where is your family from?
I grew up in Noatak. My parents are Robert and Tanya Kirk. I have one sister, Brianna Kirk, who serves on the NANA board representing Noatak.
What is your Iñupiaq name?
Nanuuraq, after my late great-grandfather, Clifton Jackson. [In 2010, as Noorvik’s oldest resident, Clifton was the first person to be counted in the 2010 U.S. Census. He passed away in 2013.]
What is your job?
I am a civil engineer in-training at Kuna.
Why civil engineering?
As a civil engineer, I can help build and improve the infrastructure in rural communities, like in our region, to make them safer and healthier places to live.
How did you know this could be a career?
My childhood friend George Onalik and I played a lot of Hot Wheels and built ramps and roads. In eighth grade, our teachers asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. After I told them what I enjoyed, they helped me define this type of job.
When I was a senior in high school, our teacher, Stan VanAmburg, offered an AutoCAD class. It’s a software program used to create precise drawings and blueprints for construction. And I took all the shop classes I could.
[In 2019, Qitchaq Stan VanAmburg received NANA’s Richard A. Baenen Award for his commitment to the people of the NANA region.]
Where did you go to school?
After graduating from Napaaqtugmiut School, I went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. By then, I was already motivated to become an engineer. I’m a math guy. I like crunching numbers to get an equation to work in my favor.
Kids from Noatak sent me letters of support to encourage me to keep going. They wrote messages like, “Good luck, Brett!” I still have some of those letters. It makes me want to give back ten times more.
Talk about your on-the-job training.
I assist the lead engineer with Kuna’s various civil engineering projects, which include improvements to water and sewer infrastructure. Every day I learn something new about engineering in Alaska. The practices used here are unique to anywhere else in the world.
Who has inspired you?
My dad, Robert Kirk, and his creativity. He could see something that, in the eyes of somebody else, was broken, and he’d find ways to use them to his advantage, like MacGyver. He has amazing, real-world judgement that can only be learned from experience. Because of him, this is something that I aspire to practice daily.
My mom, Tanya Kirk, is a leader for kids back home. She wants them to succeed and encourages them to “think positive.” She always says, “You can do it.” She shows how to treat people with kindness and respect, how to live by the Golden Rule. She used to ask me what I thought about things, so I could distinguish right from wrong for myself and learn from my mistakes.
[In 2010, Brett was named NANA’s Youth of the Year and he received a Roger Lang Native Youth Leadership Award at AFN.]
Do you have any advice?
Keep moving forward. Don’t stop. Try to have a positive impact on your community, wherever you live.
What do you like best about working for a NANA company?
I credit NANA for providing opportunities for shareholders. With Kuna, I can go talk to kids about what civil engineers do. I want them to know what opportunities exist for them.
I’m Kuna’s liaison for the BWISE program that connects our companies with schools in the region. We brainstormed on group activities. We built vertical towers using toothpicks and marshmallows to simulate earthquake activity. We sent parts to the shop class so they could fabricate an earthquake vibration table. The students blew my mind with their ingenuity.
If students are motivated to learn, if they can identify role models, and if they tap into how they learn best, I think there’s a ton of potential there.
What projects are you working on?
At Kuna, my role has been to provide technical assistance on upgrades to water and wastewater facilities in communities across the North Slope Borough. One of my new projects is to provide assistance to the village of Kiana to meet their infrastructural needs. It’s an awesome opportunity to work on projects in the region and to work with communities that want to improve their quality of life.
What has it been like for you, working from home (here in Anchorage)?
My wife, Vanessa, and I have two kids – a two-year-old toddler and a nine-month-old baby. I have been able to witness my baby half-crawl, half-walk and my toddler use a walking assistance device to take the first few steps. With my children at my feet wanting my full attention, it can be challenging sometimes, but I am determined to stay focused for my family and our well-being.
What do you see in the future?
I want to see NANA succeed. When NANA succeeds, it does what it can to improve the quality of life for shareholders and descendants.
My goal is to head up a Kuna Engineering office in Kotzebue to work with our communities on infrastructural improvements. I also want my children to grow up in the region, as I did.