For Mia Heavener ’00, most of life revolves around water. As a senior civil engineer at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), he designed water systems for communities in his home state. And during his vacations, he often works with his family’s commercial fishing business, which started with his grandmother. Almost every summer, he takes part in a three-week salmon fishing expedition to Bristol Bay.
“I was working at 1:00 this morning. You just kind of follow the tide, ”explains Heavener, who is in the Yup’ik tradition. Yupik is one of the largest indigenous groups in Alaska, where indigenous people make up about 18% of the population.
“My grandmother was born in Nushagak Bay, and I learned to work really hard here,” he says. “That was the last place, the last time I saw my father alive.” Although he lost his father when he was only 11, he chose to follow in his footsteps as a civil engineer.
After graduating from MIT and working briefly for a firm in Cambridge, Heavener returned to Alaska and found an engineering job at the NHC. He also felt a call as a writer (“I’ve always dreamed of daydreaming”), and took a long break from that job so that he could earn his master’s degree in English and write from Colorado State University, an undergraduate based on literary studies. As well as civil engineering. Her first novel, set in an Alaskan fishing village and titled Under Nushagak Bluff, was published in 2019.
On a typical week, Heaven wakes up early to write long before engineering. Although headquartered at ANTHC, the Central Native Hospital in Anchorage, he travels across the state. Of Alaska’s estimated 250 villages, he said, many have only communal water sources and about 30 still have no running water or sewerage.
“Everyone should have drinking water – it’s a pretty basic right – but there are definitely places in Alaska where it’s not,” he says. Its goal is to bring appropriate health and sanitation standards to as many communities as possible.
“The first time I designed a water plant in the village of Old Casigluk,” he recalls. “They had nothing there. They just take water and they use a bucket [for their toilet]. I remember the first time I saw kids washing their hands at home – they just had a silly smile on their faces, it turned on and off, on and off. “