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Getting out of Alaska

"I never wanted to be a scientist when I was a child. I dreamt about being a police officer, a lifeguard, a writer, and even a teacher, but I was always intimidated by some aspect of the job."

By: Kari Jean Dammerman

I never wanted to be a scientist when I was a child. I dreamt about being a police officer, a lifeguard, a writer, and even a teacher, but I was always intimidated by some aspect of the job.

When I chose marine biology as my major in college, not only was my family surprised, but I was a little surprised. It only took one tide pooling experience on the Oregon coastline before I was hooked on marine science for life.

With my decision to study marine biology, came my acceptance to the University of Alaska Southeast, a college 2100 miles away from home. Not thinking twice about it, I hopped on a plane and headed northward.

It was quite possibly the best decision of my entire life; Alaska welcomed me with open arms. Making friends, adjusting to the time difference and local weather and learning about the strong Native influence in Alaska seemed easy as Alaska became my home.

During my second year of study, I faced one of the largest challenges in my life: I went on a National Student Exchange (NSE) to North Carolina, an east coast state with a college ten times as large as UAS.

Not only were classes bigger but the weather was vastly complex, the campus a maze, I didn’t know anyone and the student body was not as welcoming as my small school had been. It was the first time in my life that I felt utterly and completely alone, like a foreigner in a strange new world.

Somehow, I overcame that loneliness by taking a deep breath and realizing that things take time. I could remain optimistic about the experience. It took about a month, but I adjusted to my new surroundings, made life-long friends, started loving my classes and even started walking around campus without a map clutched in my hand.

As time went on, I jumped at the opportunities to experience the things I couldn’t do in Alaska: touring the Civil War monuments, going to college baseball games, sleeping on the warm beach for hours on end, seeing the lighthouses of the Outer Banks, visiting Kitty Hawk where the Wright brothers first flew, learning of Blackbeard while touring a deserted island by his lair, traveling down to Georgia for a softball tournament, and even getting my scuba certification on a sunken ship.

Despite all of the amazing experiences and opportunities, it was the lesson that I learned about myself that meant the most – that I have the strength to leave my family and friends behind and face any new place alone.

Ever since that first, true experience of being a foreigner, I haven’t been afraid of any experience that’s been thrown at me. This past summer I even returned to the east coast for a research job in South Carolina, during which time I got to visit my old friends and make some amazing new ones. I took a walk around that North Carolina campus, smiling at the memories of my short time there.

The best part of the summer was my roadtrip across the United States and part of Canada, a 6000 mile trip with just a roadmap and a digital camera as my companions. After having experienced so many different areas of my own country and spending the last two years involved with the Global Connections Club here at UAS, I decided to take a step towards extending my interests in different cultures to somewhere more foreign.

That is what led me to Marsha Squires’ office last semester to apply for another academic exchange only this time through the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP). With 90% of my required classes out of the way and my academic advisor telling me to go and enjoy myself, I narrowed the list of choices down to two countries, Iceland and Norway, based upon their semester duration and the classes that I was most interested in.

From conducting whale surveys in the Norwegian Sea to hiking over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge on one of the most well-read islands in the world, the opportunity to visit either of these countries would be a life-rewarding experience in itself. Now it’s just a matter of waiting on whether either university will accept me as an exchange student for this upcoming fall semester.

My friends and family often ask if I’m scared to go off alone again, especially to a country where English speakers could easily be in the minority and home is a lot more than a day’s flight away.

Of course they don’t know that my bags are already packed, my passport easily accessible and my digital camera stocked with a fully charged battery in anticipation. After all of things I’ve been able to experience over the past four years as a student at UAS, I just tell them that I’m not afraid of the possibilities.

Content maintained by Whalesong staff.