Keanna Norton from Kotzebue received a special gift for her birthday this year: She became the first person out of the way to win an annual Alaska 529 Scholarship Account.
Norton, 23, plans to use $25,000 in scholarship funding to help her realize her dream of becoming a game developer. She wants to inspire players by creating unique characters, a space for players to connect with each other and a chance for them to build their own stories.
Alaska 529, the Alaska Education Trust’s educational savings program, announced this month that Norton has won a scholarship account grant, which has been held for the past 12 years. All 14,000 permanent fund dividend applicants who chose to contribute at least half of their earnings to the Alaska 529 account were entered into the giveaway, according to the Dec. 8 announcement.
Norton learned of the win about a month ago — on her birthday, November 12 — during a surprise Zoom session. For a student taking a gap year, this was big news.
“I was going through really tough times in my current college, and winning this took a heavy load off my shoulder and opened up a lot of options,” Norton said.
Norton is studying computer science at the University of Washington and wants to use her degree to build games that allow others to take over the narrative building.
“With video games, it’s not just about telling a story; there are a lot of little interactions that you can put in there that make it a story for someone else,” she said. “It’s just more engaging.”
She explained that in one of her favorite games, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, players can “gather your friends on the same screen” and “It’s all about you and your friends getting around in a caravan and exploring together. The fun part about that is the story you make with your friends.”
Before Norton started playing games as a child, she learned to draw. Her mom works as a school teacher, and their house always had “tons and tons of art supplies.”
“I’ve always been doing art and playing with paint or crayons because that’s the house I grew up in,” Norton said.
In third grade, she remembered that she had worked with a large piece of paper that she had glued to cardboard “to make it a little more luxurious” and drawn “ladies in fancy dresses, perhaps princesses.”
“This is probably the first time I’ve started drawing in earnest,” Norton said. She also remembers her math lessons where she would finish assignments earlier than the other students and spend her free time filling in papers with colorful art. “Drawing has always been fun for me, if only because it has always been so rewarding to look back at the paper and see something cool.”
For Norton, drawing is also an act of meditation and a way of thinking about her stories and characters. She described one of her inspirations, the character Grimoire Weiss in the game Drakengard. Norton explained that the character — a book that talks, knows everything, floats — doesn’t have the most heroic role but is memorable and lovable. Grimoire Weiss conveys charisma and personality through movements and gestures, without having to use different facial expressions.
As for the characters Norton creates, they reflect what Norton thinks of or what she’s going through in her life.
“The characters I like to focus on kind of reflect how I feel at the time,” she said.
Norton was born and raised in Kotzebue, where she also currently lives. The pandemic struck while at the University of Washington, and she said she was happy to put her life on campus on hold. Her transition from Alaska to Washington was not smooth: she missed the cool and quiet of her home in Kotzebue.
“My room (my residence) was in the corner of the seventh floor, on the side of the building that received sunlight most of the day, so it got really hot, and that was attracting ladybugs and flies every day,” she said. . “Even when I was alone in my room and just wanted to enjoy some quiet time, I could hear cars in the distance and a low hum almost as loud as a plane taking off in Kotzebue.”
Norton is not sure if she wants to go back to the University of Washington or choose another school to finish her degree. Fortunately, she can use the grant money to pay for any college, university, or vocational or technical school that accepts federal financial aid.
“I’m still considering my options,” said Norton, whose story is – as of now – still open.