Truth Lying in the Tundra
by Stephanie Thompson
A friend once advised me that the smartest way to success was to pick the right battles, the easiest ones to win. In that case, I thought, I chose the wrong battle coming to MIT instead of staying at home and going to college in Alaska. I chose to relinquish my understanding of my surroundings entirely by going all by myself to a college way out on the East Coast, with a much more rigorous reputation than Alaska's schools. I had no idea how to maneuver through this new society.
Society works differently in rural Alaska than on the relatively "modern" East Coast. Early on at MIT, I had difficulty with simply gathering the courage to call or visit someone's office, since I could never know how the stranger on the other end might respond. I felt incredibly uncomfortable because I was so accustomed to the person behind the desk being someone who lived down the road from me, shopped at the same grocery store, and heard the same gossip, as everyone did in my small hometown. This difference in professionalism is only one facet of the many contrasts in lifestyle.
Making sense of these differences has not been an easy battle, because the nature of Alaskan society, in my experience, has also been quite dysfunctional. Many visitors to Alaska speak of its wondrous natural beauty; also from these outsiders come inevitable light-hearted quips about igloos and polar bears. But just as I was ignorant of the ways of modern urban society, such outsiders to Alaska are ignorant of its darker side, the dark that creeps in the tundra even in the 24-hour summer sunlight and lives in the caribou we eat for dinner.
"You just need to pick the right battles, that's all. Then you'll start doing better," he told me. The more rash side of me wanted to call him arrogant, but I sensed he really was just trying to help.
As we stood in the kitchen waiting for our dinner to finish, I recognized the truth in my new friend's advice on succeeding at MIT, but I couldn't accept it. I wanted to rage at him, "You didn't think I chose the hardest battle of all coming out here in the first place? You've called me out before on how ignorant I am. I can't just figure everything out by myself! By your advice, I might as well just go home now."
It's true; many students here have chosen the hardest battle by coming to MIT. For some, it's the reason why they chose it. It's also hard not to choose: the best education, the best reputation, and the best jobs after graduation. For most, this justifies the battle, but for me, it's not so simple.
With its fourth-largest city less than 9,000 people in size, the state is characterized by a population that still largely lives off the land, fishing and hunting for their incomes and their dinner tables. There is no college degree for subsistence, no finance in hunting and gathering.
My hometown of Kotzebue, Alaska is a remote village of 3,500 people on the Arctic Circle not connected to any roads; hardly anyone here goes to college. Kotzebue is actually the hub of the region; most other villages in the area number only a few hundred people. The numbers are similar for all rural regions of Alaska. With its fourth-largest city less than 9,000 people in size, the state is characterized by a population that still largely lives off the land, fishing and hunting for their incomes and their dinner tables. There is no college degree for subsistence, no finance in hunting and gathering. A university education isn't central to the society's function, so it is uncommon for many in my hometown to get one. As a result, the universities in the area aren't exactly known for their rigor-even by public school standards-and non-competitive scholarships abound because there are ample funds to encourage only so many students. The simple physical harshness of the climate and remote location of most Alaskan communities raises the cost of living and therefore salaries.
Aerial View, Kotzebue, Alaska
Creative Commons License
Because of all this, I could have gone to college back home in Alaska and not have paid a dime, spent more time with my family, and had a hell of a lot easier time passing my classes and still probably have landed an eighty-thousand-a-year job right out of college. I had already spent the past few years at boarding school while my family struggled to manage life in the village, so taking off to the East Coast for an education that would likely get me the same paycheck I could have gotten if I stayed home felt selfish. Beyond money, the possibility of my finding some fancy research position later would make no tangible difference in my family's life, either. Every time I enjoyed a new experience here at MIT, a shadow of guilt would hide behind my smile for what felt like abandonment of my family. I felt troubled that my battle was not justified, and my friend's simplistic advice seemed inconsiderate of this situation and my feelings.
My friend could not have known any of this, but all the same, the burn in my heart made me want to lecture him about another aspect of life in Kotzebue: "Let me explain how it works in Alaska. Most people in the village, they go through high school--schools that are barely passing state standards of education--stoned and drunk and barely graduate (that is, if they don't drop out to become full-time drug dealers). Then they spend a few years living with their parents wallowing in alcoholism or drug addiction until some tragic accident occurs, invariably because someone was drunk and doing something stupid. Best-case scenario, this tragedy is emotionally jarring enough that they realize they need to change. Assuming they don't get caught up in depression and drink even more, they shape up and go to vocational school, sometimes college, and control their vices enough to start a career and not get fired. For their oh-so-valiant efforts, they are rewarded with eighty-thousand-a-year jobs mining or drilling for oil." Much of the regional economy is powered by jobs at Red Dog Mine, about 100 miles north of Kotzebue, or up at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's northern coast, where oil flows from the ground and money flows into everyone's pockets.
My 20-year-old sister, still living in Kotzebue and much more entrenched in village life than I, rattled off in a phone conversation half a dozen people1 she knew who had done just what I described. "Yeah, let's see, there's "John-John" Roberts, brothers Tom and Harry Williams... Oh, and our cousin Kyle!" she started off, and then continued to recall more. Sharon Sours and Alexa Johnson were at Red Dog, and 22-year-old Harry Stevens managed to make his way into the oil industry up at Prudhoe Bay. "But then he got fired for smoking weed," my sister added casually before telling me, "Jason Carter dropped out of high school, and he had a job last summer that paid forty bucks an hour."
If dropouts could get jobs that paid like that at home, then it was certainly not necessary that I travel the 3,500 miles from Kotzebue to Cambridge for a college degree. But to not put 3,500 miles between myself and the stoners, alcoholics, and dropouts of the village? To not be 3,500 miles away from the failure and dysfunction, from an afflicted society? It would appear I had a battle to choose: should I take on the unknown at a serious college in a big, far-away city, or stay in Alaska and hope I stayed afloat with my family?
And what could my friend have known about this private dilemma, anyway?
Six out of a hundred is the number of Alaskan ninth graders likely to have a college degree within the next ten years. Alaska ranks worst in the nation for this statistic.
Six out of a hundred is the number of Alaskan ninth graders likely to have a college degree within the next ten years. Alaska ranks worst in the nation for this statistic. Within the next ten years, twenty two of these students are predicted to go to college but not graduate, and thirty four settle for their high school diplomas. Thirty eight will drop out of high school (ACPE 2008). Alaska's high school dropout rate is twice the national average (NCES 2008). Kotzebue and every other village in rural Alaska suffer from problems similar to those of the inner city: drug and alcohol abuse, high school dropout and teen pregnancy rates, and poverty. The remote location in a harsh climate adds a high cost of living to the fray. Gas and oil still cost $7 a gallon, and shipping costs bring a gallon of milk up to $10-and jobs are not always aplenty to cover these costs in such small populations. Instead of guns killing people, alcohol-related accidents kill people. Up to 90% of all crimes in some villages are alcohol-related (ADN 2009). A close cousin of mine, a year older than me and my best friend until about third grade, almost lost his life in an accident last April when he and his drunken friend plowed a snowmobile into a stopped pickup truck at fifty miles an hour. His friend, who was my age, was in front driving and died on impact.
When I brought up these accidents with my mother, she let out her sigh of hopelessness that she sounds all too often. "Every winter, especially around the holidays when everyone is partying, you wonder who's going to be next. There are always at least two or three major accidents around Christmas and another during Thanksgiving.... It's strange celebrating the holidays when you know someone is probably going to die." A haunting realization that not many people in the village make, even I was taken aback when she spoke it, thinking that it might have been better left unsaid.
I absolutely would not be able to handle continuing to live amidst such chaos; I'd no doubt go insane if I stayed. But my family had made sacrifices so that I could focus on my education and attend boarding school, so I felt compelled to help them back. If I stayed in Alaska for college, a state scholarship would cover the tuition and I'd only be a short plane ride away in the next city over. I'd be in a place I was familiar with and at a college where I could balance school and work much more easily. I could pursue my education and still be there for my family more than I could in Massachusetts, and they deserved it.
... I left. I got out. Rationally, there was never any doubt that I would leave Alaska for my education, whether I attended MIT or elsewhere. Education gave me career as well as life opportunities too valuable to turn down, even for the sake of my family.
But I left. I got out. Rationally, there was never any doubt that I would leave Alaska for my education, whether I attended MIT or elsewhere. Education gave me career as well as life opportunities too valuable to turn down, even for the sake of my family. They had weathered rural Alaska without me for four years when I was in high school, anyway. They were my hardy Alaskan family and wanted the best for me. I'll return the favor after college when I start my career.
That was rationally. Emotionally, the task of putting Alaska aside each day in any given situation requires much greater effort.
"You've never seen Monty Python?" my friend exclaimed, the same one who offered me advice about succeeding at MIT.
"...Naw man, ain't nobody watches that shit in the village." Bristling with attitude, I overplayed my improper way of speaking that was common in the village, getting defensive because of what I sensed was coming next.
"I can't believe you've never seen Monty Python! You're so... uncultured; you need to be educated!"
That did it. It was only a silly movie, no serious example of ignorance. I knew he wasn't trying to be mean; he was speaking jovially and with a smile and couldn't have known it was a soft spot for me. He was only expressing how much he wanted me to experience and enjoy the supposed genius of Monty Python. He was right, and although he didn't realize how serious it was, I didn't like it one bit.
"Well I ain't the only one, I'll tell ya that much...." I started, with a roll of my eyes, voice burning with resentment.
"What...?" A blank, unknowing stare.
"You know your little 'pick the right battles' crap? Well, what if it's not that simple and there are no easy battles? You didn't think I chose the hardest battle of all coming out here in the first place..."
Rationally, I chose to fight the battle that was outside Alaska. But emotionally, I'm still tethered to my home and family. Alaska is where I grew up and where I learned most everything I knew about the world up to this year; abandoning or disowning it would be like denying who I am. But the outright dysfunction of life in the village prevents me from being able to accept it. This complexity always makes it a little risky to bring up the subject of Alaska in detail with me; I try to stay cordial about it, but my reasoning gets clouded and I stumble over my emotions and I'm never quite sure how I'm coming off. If I ever do return to live there after college, it will only be when I can finally accept and enjoy it.
Most of what anyone knows about Alaska is tourist knowledge: beautiful, untouched landscapes and wildlife; cold snowy winters and Northern Lights; polar bears and igloos. I can take the stereotyped jokes, and I even make them myself to put others at ease. After all, I can understand what it's like to interact with people whose experiences I'm clueless about. But, I'm sorry to disappoint, Alaska isn't all brilliant snowscapes and auroras; life can get as cold and bleak as its harsh, arctic climate.Endnotes
1. All names have been changed to protect privacy.
Cataldi, E.F., Laird, J., and KewalRamani, A. (2009). High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 2007 (NCES 2009-064). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.Web. 13 Nov 2009.
Gherman, S. C., and L. H. Wirkus (2008). Annual Report. Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education, State of Alaska, United States. Juneau, AK. Web. 13 Nov 2009.
Hopkins, Kyle. "Bethel considers easing alcohol restrictions." Anchorage Daily News (2009). 13 Nov 2009. <http://www.adn.com/rural/western/story/941655.html>.