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Bringing Higher Education Into The Wild In Alaska


Now by seaplane, fishing boat and kayak to Southeast Alaska. There, NPR's Anya Kamenetz met a young woman who's trying to reinvent higher education. Her aim, to use the wilderness to prepare diverse students for lives of purpose in an ever more fragile world.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Laura Marcus' own college dream began with a rejection. As a high schooler in Indiana, more than anything, she wanted to go to Deep Springs. It's a college on a working cattle ranch in California. Students practice self-governance. That is, they help run the school.

LAURA MARCUS: I called up the admissions office to plead my case, not knowing that - at the time, that the admissions office was a 19-year-old guy that I was talking to on the phone, and basically was told, no, sorry. We won't consider your application.

KAMENETZ: From its founding in 1917 up until 2018, Deep Springs accepted only men.

MARCUS: So that ended that dream for the moment. But I really never lost sight of that.

KAMENETZ: By the time she got to Yale, Marcus had decided that if she wouldn't be allowed into Deep Springs, she would found a new one - this time, open to all.

MARCUS: We got a sea otter out here.

KAMENETZ: Oh, yeah.

MARCUS: I think it's got a pup actually.

KAMENETZ: It's early morning in Elfin Cove, a 30-minute seaplane ride west of Juneau, Alaska. Marcus, dressed in rubber boots and flannel, is motoring us in an old crab boat toward a round, sheltered cove nicknamed the Hobbit Hole. It's a few buildings at the base of some steep, pine-covered mountains. There's a vegetable garden. There's some ducks.

MARCUS: Are you on ducks today?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. I'm on ducks.

MARCUS: Oh, good.

KAMENETZ: This is home for the 12 students of The Arete Project. Arete in Greek means excellence. The program is designed to answer the question, what if...

MARCUS: ...The work that students were doing, not only in the classroom but also in the labor that they were performing on and for the campus and in the work of self-governance that they were doing, actually mattered?

KAMENETZ: After a few years of experimenting on a shoestring budget, Marcus has landed on an intensive blend of outdoor and classroom-based learning.

MARCUS: And you'll see we got all kinds of crab pots and shrimp pots around here.

KAMENETZ: Those long Alaska summer days are spent outside fishing, dressing deer, picking berries, learning homesteading skills, like scraping halibut skin.


MARCUS: Cutting fish skins.

KAMENETZ: Yes, you can make leather from a fish.

MARCUS: Hey, guys.

KAMENETZ: Students also spend three hours each day in seminar, which focuses on people's relationship to nature, ranging from their traditional knowledge of the local Huna Tlingit to using big data to track wildlife populations. At the end of the summer, they can earn college credit in environmental studies. The entire program is free. And students are picked from all over the country. Marcus says the idea is...

MARCUS: Take students who normally would never have interacted with one another, who never would have gone to college with one another or maybe never even seen one another - to put them all in this really extraordinary experience, the likes of which pretty much none of them have ever had before, and see what happens.

KAMENETZ: Sometimes what happens is personal and emotional. One day in seminar, in the airy bunkhouse with its woodstove, the students pick up an ongoing discussion of climate change.

KELSEY HERNANDEZ: My fear goes back to...

KAMENETZ: Kelsey Hernandez was a student teacher at the University of Alaska. She talks about her fear that the children here will grow up wearing masks because of wildfires, having to leave their home villages as permafrost melts, never again hearing certain birds.

HERNANDEZ: And that for me is the most terrifying, to think that the group of kindergartners that I just taught that by the time they graduate, some of the things that they had grown to love in their world might not exist.

KAMENETZ: Yasamin Sharifi, a Yale graduate whose family immigrated from Iran, objects - that where she comes from, little children are already suffering the effects of environmental damage.

YASAMIN SHARIFI: In Iran, you see that the smog is worse. And people walk around wearing masks. Like, that's normal.

MARIE TRAORE: For me, personally as well, like, living in Mali, like, it's drier than ever over there.

HERNANDEZ: Marie Traore graduated from the City University of New York. She's seen children in Africa growing up among the garbage America ships away. Her voice breaks.

TRAORE: It's really frustrating that we just, like, I guess cut the conversation as, like, a future thing because we keep talking about it. But it's not a future thing. It's a now thing.

HERNANDEZ: Clustered on couches looking out on the woods, students try to make sense of big world problems with their varied life experiences.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You got to wail on it, Sue. I know...

KAMENETZ: But living in close quarters and working hard outdoors knits the community together.

The highlight of Abe Norman's first time here last summer was digging post holes for a woodshed by hand.

ABE NORMAN: There's pictures of us with our arms, like, arm deep in the hole. And it's especially fun when it's raining. And you're just, like, laying on the ground.

KAMENETZ: Arete helped him realize for sure he didn't want a corporate job.

NORMAN: And going up to, like, the 26th floor and, like, walking past all these people kind of droning away at their cubicles.

KAMENETZ: He aims to become a firefighter. But first, he came back to Arete to be a program assistant, where his duties include running a blacksmith forge they found on the property.

NORMAN: The thing that everybody's been making are coat hooks.

KAMENETZ: The next phase of The Arete Project will be a yearlong college program. But it won't be all that much bigger.

MARCUS: If we tried to do this with 50 students or 100 students or 1,000 students or 10,000 students, we would necessarily lose something, if not everything, of what makes us education unique.

KAMENETZ: Marcus' hope instead is that each person who passes through here will be transformed, kind of like Abe.

After class, the students take kayaks out in the icy strait to catch dinner.

SHARIFI: Oh, dang (laughter).

KAMENETZ: Yasamin hooks her rockfish right away, then two more. She whispers, thank you, fish. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, Elfin Cove, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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