College Survival Guide: Welcome to rural, Alaskan travel

Jason Hersey/Sun Star Columnist

April 22, 2014


As it gets dark and the scenery from Northwestern Alaska fades, my plane heads back to Anchorage, the city of origin. We landed in Kotzebue, tried for Nome, headed back to Kotzebue, and finally returned to Anchorage.

“What am I doing here?”

Although, I missed a flight out of Fairbanks that morning, and was soon to be stuck in Nome for two days due to weather and soft, rural village runways, this five-hour round-trip flight from Anchorage to Anchorage was the point I realized that the plan would have no chance for completion by any of my own efforts.

“Welcome to rural, Alaskan travel!” I heard so many times over those few days.

This past week has been, arguably, the most exciting week for UAF student interns in the teaching licensure program: the rural practicum. About 15 student teachers headed out to different village schools around rural, Alaska to volunteer, teach and learn. Villages visited included Stebbins, St. Marys, Wales, Koyuk, New Stuyahok, Quinhagak, Manokotak, and even Nenana.

The UAF interns keep blogs while out in the villages and the reactions from all have been extremely positive. Clearly, it has been a nice change of scenery from our home schools, and for many, the first ever visit to rural, Alaska. All of the villages have been extremely accommodating! Some interns were greeted at the rural airports with snowmachine trips to cart them and all their stuff to the schools.

The interns’ blogs tell the stories that make each rural experience unique, yet memorable. “We were informed that the library is haunted…” said intern Kelly Gebauer about their sleeping accommodations. After the kids lost interest in hacky-sacking due to dog poop on the hacky sack, said intern Andrew Slagle, “I had more fun chasing kids and waving my poopy hacky sack at them.”

Village education can be truly remarkable as it incorporates village life into the curriculum. “Five minutes after getting to the school, I was covered in fishy slime,” said intern Allison Whitaker as she explained that students were filleting pike for a home-ec class.

My experience was quite different, however. I never did make it to my rural destination, Wales. Instead I spent roughly nine hours airborne and about 26 hours waiting in the airports for the weather to clear or the runway to be grated. I also got to overnight in Anchorage and spend two days and nights getting to know Nome.

Nome is the hub for much of Northwestern, Alaska. It is sort of a melting pot of culture as it has historically attracted gold miners, dog mushers, reindeer herders, and Alaska Natives from all over the area. I learned that the camps a half-mile out on the frozen sea ice were for dredging sea gold, and that the dredgers would have to dive down to their dredges to check them. I heard many casual conversations about drying fish, heading to “camp,” and how many caribou so and so had gotten on their recent hunt. I heard a funny story of how a walrus had choked on a king salmon up by Diomede, which floated in making it the easiest hunt ever.

I overheard white people complain about how claims to traditional hunting areas meant that those who claimed it could hunt on their private property. I saw how alcoholism and drug abuse ran rampant in Nome. It wasn’t what many claim to be as a problem with only Alaska Natives, but that it was a universal problem that crossed all cultures. I saw the tears of two middle-aged ladies, as they told of a cousin who had been recently killed by an alleged “coked-up” driver.

Educating is about breaking down barriers. Whether in a village or a large inner-city school, the prejudices between cultures, the rich and poor, or politicians and public policy, can take hold of the minds of many. However, inspiring are those that break these barriers by collaboration, teaching and learning from their diverse neighbors and those they run across in passing. I saw a lot of that too.

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