A retrospective from the 2019 Student Body

11 November 2019

Letter from the 2019 Student Body

By: Carmen Simons, Kayla Reifel, Kira Fagerstrom, Mavi Çelebi

Firstly, the 2019 Outer Coast Student Body would like to say gunalchéesh tlein! Thank you to everyone who brought us together in Sitka and helped make the Summer Seminar possible. This yearʼs Student Body hailed from all corners of Alaska, the US, and the globe. Our 23 members brought together innovative ideas of social change, unique worldviews, and a wide range of languages to help create the journey that was the 2019 Summer Seminar. What follows are our reflections about what we learned, gained, and how we grew throughout the summer. We hope you all enjoy the Student Body’s (the “SB’s”) firsthand account of our experience at the 2019 Outer Coast Summer Seminar, and remember, Roll Coast, Baby!

Academics

Coming into the program, one of its unique draws was the academic pillar. While many of us came in with the expectation of normal (if rigorous) classes, we were blown away by the breadth of topics and depth of study in our classes. Even while being constrained to just five weeks, we were able to dive deep into difficult and relevant questions that have continued to challenge and encourage us back home.

During Imagining Otherwise: Utopia and Apocalypse in a Changing World, we were challenged by University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) Professor Sol Neely to do… just that: imagine other worlds, futures, and possibilities. Rooted in indigenous and non-Western understandings of the world, we defined utopia for ourselves, and subsequently dreamed up a wide range of other possible utopias inspired by readings and growth of experience. These projects were presented (in forms ranging from fireside stories to improvised performances). Imagining Otherwise gave us new perspectives from which to tackle the problems we face in our own communities.

During Tlingit Language and Indigenous Studies, we were exposed to and able to immerse ourselves in the Tlingit language while being on Lingít aaní, Tlingit land. UAS professor X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell provided us with immense insight into the importance and sheer complexity of indigenous knowledge and worldviews, both in our lives and in our studies. This visceral insight into Alaska Native cultures and languages provided to us was an especially poignant part of the class. Being able to learn the language and stories of the people who have lived on the land—in which we have been guests—for 10,000+ years, was wholly unique and unparalleled in any other summer experience.

In The Most Important Question, we were challenged with not just asking, but answering and animating, what we saw as the most important questions facing the human race. Jenell Paris worked with us to figure out which questions were the most significant, impactful, and realistically answerable. Over the course of the class, we deeply explored our questions by studying and responding to different thinkers throughout history who had tried to do the same. We were able to learn from those who came before us to help us answer what we felt were today’s most important investigations.

Service

During the 80+ hours of Service that each of us completed during the program, we weeded, shoveled, laid trails, waxed a fleet of fire trucks, organized a barbecue and talent show, picked berries, cleaned up marine debris along the shoreline, and, most of all, painted. We painted everything from benches to buildings to teen centers to round-ponds at the salmon hatchery!

Active service lent a valuable dimension to the program separate from, yet still related to, the academic and self-governance pillars. Service forged strong bonds between us and the community of Sitka. For example, we felt a strong familiarity with families and kids in Sitka after working at the 4-H Summer Harvest camp. We were also thanked by the community in forms ranging from passersby commending us for our work on the Indian River Trail to a free tour of the Alaska Raptor Center after we volunteered there.

We hope that service will continue to be an important part of Outer Coast. It provided us with a welcome afternoon respite from classes, yet still was fundamentally intertwined with what we were learning in the classroom. Rather than just relaxation, we were able to actively engage in our community. As the college continues forward, we hope this community integration will remain just as important for future Student Bodies as it was for us.

Self-Governance

Self-Governance presented us with a challenge unlike any other. We were presented with a situation unlike what we had faced in other forms of student governance (such as student councils) at our respective high schools: near-absolute freedom. Our first SB meeting, held after a long day of orientation to Sitka and to each other, was guided in part by our RTAs. But, beyond that first date, we were charged to set our own goals, procedures, and values for how we wanted to run our Student Body.

Looking back, Self-Governance was certainly the greatest learning experience for us—perhaps even more so than the academic classes. It was facing the challenge of maintaining order and learning the balancing act of keeping ourselves happy, productive, healthy, and well-rested. The system we established was fairly basic at first. We worked issue by issue on consensus voting to resolve problems and establish basic plans for service and weekend activities. And, as the needs pressed upon the SB grew, so did our methods.

Initially, we established three committees, Fun, Cleaning, and Budget to regulate ourselves. The Fun Committee planned a few of our outings, including a successful trip to the rope swing outside of town. Cleaning set a much-needed routine for individual and community cleaning time on Sundays. Budget helped plan out the purchasing of snacks, financing excursions, and other things for the Outer Coast community.

We soon found we needed a system of conflict resolution and a concrete way to hold each other accountable for our actions. We established a team of mediators to help resolve individual conflicts, as well as a few service teams tasked with coordinating new volunteering opportunities. With little institutional memory from last yearʼs SB, we built our structures and foundations without much experience or guidance. This led to a number of conflicts, issues, and quite a bit of frustration. Yet, we learned from experience by seeing the consequences of our actions (positive and negative) play out firsthand. Realizing it would be helpful to have guidance from past Student Bodies, this yearʼs SB has put together a video for next yearʼs students to watch so we can pass on a little of what we think we learned.

Community Building

Amid rigorous academics and rewarding, fun service, students and staffulty were able to find time to build meaningful relationships and lively culture and community. On Sunday evenings, the Outer Coast community would gather to hear stories of their choosing from individual students—about people or things important to them, political scandals, their lives, their struggles, and some of the many experiences that shape who they are as people. This unique experience exposed us all to a highly diverse set of life-stories, from people we never would have met otherwise. Storytelling fostered a close-knit and personal community

The many recreational activities the Student Body took ownership in planning also fostered community and strong interpersonal relationships. From day trips to an ocean rope swing to evening cookouts to funky dance parties, the Fun Committee always kept us entertained, happy, and connected with each other and the beautiful community and land of Sitka. The lively and robust sharing of thoughts, opinions, music tastes, stories, and more between the entire highly diverse Outer Coast community was a critical part of what made the Summer Seminar so special and rewarding to all of us.

Each night of Storytelling felt like a moment of growth for all of us, and the same remained true for many of our activities this summer. There were moments of conflict alongside those of cooperation and friendship, but we were able to find resolution and growth from them rather than letting them hold us back. One thing we could all probably agree upon, if our tearful 4:00 am goodbyes at the airport werenʼt enough to indicate it, is that we all felt like family at the end.

Conclusion

So again, aatlein gunalchéesh from the whole of the Outer Coast Student Body for making this yearʼs Summer Seminar a success and for allowing us to learn so much about ourselves, each other, and the world around us. We hope that Outer Coast will continue forging bonds between people, altering and shaping worldviews, and bringing innovative, sharp minds together for many years to come.

The Summer Seminar was made possible through your generous donations. We are grateful for your support in making our programs financially accessible to all students.


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