The Fall session is underway and it’s been a few weeks already since the return of our new students whose first taste of education at APU was a backcountry Alaskan adventure with faculty, staff, and Alaska Pacific University President, Don Bantz. Depending on the section of Expedition Alaska in which they were enrolled, they spent between 10 and 18 days on the Yukon River, rafting or canoeing, learning about the natural history of the state or getting an intensive introduction to wilderness skills.
How cool is that??
With a curriculum based on a model of hands-on, experiential learning that takes place in a community environment of small classes with personalized attention from faculty who value and nurture the passions of their individual students, Expedition Alaska is just about the best example you could have of what makes getting an education at APU unique and exciting, “a transformative experience” as Don Bantz likes to say. And we showcase the hell out of it.
The blogs, photos and videos from the return of Expedition Alaska, 2013, the year the course was rolled out, read, and look like, ads for GoPro cameras. Some of the images of the thirty-plus students who made the trip could be straight out of “The Lords of Dogtown,” and the excitement over the success of this first ExpAK experience leaps from the digital page. This set the bar, of course, and so when Expedition Alaska, 2014, was being pulled together, expectations were running high.
It was a quiet, even shy, second group of students who departed the APU campus for the Yukon late last August, and roughly half the size from the year before. Eagle, where they launched into the Yukon River, was experiencing record low temperatures that were miserably cold for some of them, who were used to the climates of Los Angeles, Thailand, Alabama and Georgia. Upon returning, the students seemed to vanish and I had no luck at all tracking them down on campus to tell me their stories. I appealed to their faculty, who seemed testy and somewhat reluctant to let me into the classroom, concerned, I gathered, that I intended to exploit the students for marketing purposes.
They were right, of course, although “exploit” is a bit harsh. But I was definitely looking to find the Crazy and Exciting, the snazzy photos and splashy GoPro footage of close calls and maybe a little knife play, something that would give the CFO fits and this final installment on ExpAK 2014 the legs it needed to sell APU and Expedition Alaska to this year’s high school senior checking out our web-site.
That’s my job, after all. And I wanted my Dogtown.
I framed it in nicer terms when I was finally allowed into the classroom to talk to the students, but they must have sensed my true purpose all the same because they behaved like frightened deer. Not a single student showed up in my office to “share,” which I think is how I put it to them. Luckily, I was invited back to the class a second time to attend the last hour of the last class when these elusive students and their faculty would be viewing their photos from the trip. Between the time crunch and some technical difficulties, it was a quick view, but it spoke volumes about each and every student in the class.
Melissa’s photos, for example, were of people, mostly. They told me that the bonds I saw forming in the Mosley Gymnasium as she and her dorm-mates packed up and prepared their gear had grown even tighter on the Yukon. They showed me her sense of humor and her heart. Here were Ray’s photos, assembled into a slick slide show complete with opening title, credits and a final shot of the auteur himself, Yukon-filthy and fabulous. Maryann had used a GoPro in a way I had never seen before, and her fish-bowled photos of blowing tents, liquorizing sunsets and an arctic outhouse were surreal, slightly creepy, even, and very compelling, all at the same time. The images that came from Sarah’s camera made me wonder why in God’s name she was studying Psychology when she needed to be in art school.
These were not the Z-Boys of Dogtown. No. These lambs were sleepers, and I was intrigued. Using donuts as a bribe, I arranged to meet them in the dorms the following Monday, when they had the day off from classes. Intriguing or not, however, students are students, so only a few of them actually showed up, the four whom I’ve now dubbed My Usual Suspects: Melissa, Ray, Maryann and Sarah. I remembered what each of them had told me they wanted out of Expedition Alaska before they left. Had the experience delivered? I was dying to know.
Sarah, a self-described loner, had wanted to see if she could hang out with a group of people.
“I found out that working with other people is possible for me, that I could have patience and have fun with everyone,” she said. Sarah is from the Anchorage area and has always preferred reading inside to outdoor adventure. She had been worried before she left about being perceived as a weakling by the group, but had found instead that they were supportive and she had enjoyed the physicality of the experience. This had boosted her self-esteem. Would she do it again?
“Well, at least now I know that I can,” she said.
Remember the student I mentioned in the last blog? The one who had never been on open water in his life before the group practiced their paddling and rowing techniques on Goose Lake in preparation for the Yukon? That was Ray. When I had asked Ray, who grew up in Inglewood, California, what he wanted from the Expedition Alaska experience, he said he wanted new adventures, and he had gotten them, by golly. He ate S’mores for the first time, he said. And summer sausage. He had seen bears.
“Has this changed you?” I asked.
“It’s made me bolder,” he said. “It’s made me realize you need to take risks in life.” He went four-wheeling the weekend after he got back from the Yukon River. Terrified of water when he arrived at APU, he’s learning how to swim.
“It made me want more field courses!” Maryann said. Melissa and Ray agreed. Maryann and Melissa, Marine Biology majors from LA and Chicago, both said that they had learned a lot about the scientific method on the trip, about what it meant to “observe closely” and pay attention to detail. Both said that they looked at and engaged with the world differently as a result of the experience, and that the lack of distractions in the remote backcountry, like cell phones, laptops, television and the noise of everyday life had made all the difference.
“They definitely came back changed,” Raina Panarese told me. Raina, the APU Outdoor Program Coordinator and a wilderness guide, had accompanied the group that rafted the Yukon River this year. Seeing the wilderness from their fresh eyes, she had appreciated it even more herself. She was impressed by how the students had faced down the challenges of the unseasonably cold temperatures with a good attitude and camaraderie. She had enjoyed their openness to new experiences, their curiosity and hunger for more knowledge.
Although she’s a life-long Alaskan, Raina had never been on the Yukon River before and one of her goals for Expedition Alaska was to add it to her guiding repertoire. Her second, and more important, goal was to develop a bond with the first year students and be a part of the APU experience she herself had enjoyed as a student.
“I told them that this is a new chapter of their lives, and that some of the connections they’re making right now with each other can be life-long friendships.” She pointed out to the students that she had met Janelle Dyer, one of the other staff members on the trip and Raina’s closest friend, when they were both students in Outdoor Studies at APU.
“That’s when I met you and Janelle,” I said, remembering them both as the teenagers who showed up in my classes several years ago. “Isn’t it great working with the next generation?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said.
Expedition Alaska is without question a transformative experience for APU students, one that highlights some of the most unique aspects of the educational model practiced here. But the fact is, all education is transformative. You never know what a new class of students will be like when they come to APU, nor who they will be when they leave, but they will never be like any other. No matter who they are, to watch them grow and change profoundly during that time and to have any part in it is the deepest sort of privilege I know. This, too, is transformative.