About the Project

Mission Statement

Outer Coast seeks to teach and inspire promising young people to create virtuous change in the world and in their own lives. It aims to accomplish this mission by providing a rigorous and challenging academic curriculum marked by exceptional pedagogy and faculty engagement; by imparting the value of labor and service to a diverse student body entrusted with broad powers of self-governance; by cultivating love for community and respect for nature within the setting of Sitka, Alaska; by fostering creativity, curiosity, honesty, generosity, resilience, self-reliance, and good humor; and by accompanying students in their search for self-understanding and moral worth.

Whom We Serve

The student body of Outer Coast will be national and international in breadth, and diverse in many ways, including race, gender, and socioeconomic status. The project will make a special effort to recruit students from Alaska, particularly Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans, as well as high-achieving students from underserved backgrounds.

North Pacific Hall, Sheldon Jackson Campus. Credit: Berett Wilber.
© Berett Wilber

Why Outer Coast?

Virtue can be inspired. Making change can be taught. Education that succeeds does both.

This is the ethos of Outer Coast. We believe that students should graduate from college not only with a credential but also with the purpose and tools to improve the world.

At too many schools this fundamental mission has faded. We have seen and experienced the pressures, both internal and external, that lead today’s colleges and universities to prioritize scholarship over teaching and degrees over learning. Their students often graduate with a sense that they have neither the obligation nor the ability to affect meaningful change. And yet, amidst a shifting educational and economic landscape, the college degree is more valuable than ever: it has become not just a proxy, but a necessary prerequisite for an individual’s future potential.

Making change is hard; we fail at least as often as we succeed. Students must appreciate failure as well as success and understand the true stakes of both. They must take on responsibility that stretches their comfort and abilities, endeavors for which the road to success is neither clear nor guaranteed.

This is why Outer Coast’s forty students are vested with broad powers of self-governance: administering student recruitment and rendering admissions decisions; legislating student life and adjudicating discipline; assessing and hiring faculty and planning curriculum; and helping to oversee the institution by electing peers to serve on the Board of Trustees.

This is why, through our labor program, our students are entrusted with the necessary, often unglamorous work of the institution: custodial responsibilities, building maintenance, groundskeeping, answering phones, cooking, and dishwashing. This is why, through our service program, our students serve Sitka: volunteering with public libraries and public schools, contributing to tribal and social service organizations, and participating in stewardship of the natural world.

This is why, through our academic program, Outer Coast fosters a culture of excellence in teaching and learning. Students and faculty must be fellow investigators, with intellectual curiosity, honesty, and humility their watchwords.

Above all, this is why we feel compelled to renew our society’s commitment to a fundamental mission of higher education: to provide students not only with the ability to analyze and think, but also with the purpose and tools to improve the world.

Brief History of the Project

Founded in 1878, Sheldon Jackson College was the oldest institution of higher learning in Alaska until its closure in 2007. At that time, title to the deteriorating campus was transferred to the nationally recognized Sitka Fine Arts Camp.

In the ensuing years, led by the inspiring vision of the Fine Arts Camp, the community of Sitka rallied to restore the campus in perhaps the largest volunteer effort in the history of Alaska.

In summer 2014, Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins began discussing with the Deep Springs community the possibility of founding a new college in partnership with the Fine Arts Camp. Conversations on this front continue.

In January 2015, Jonathan visited Deep Springs College to explore adapting its model to Sitka. (For more on Deep Springs, a small, highly successful two-year liberal arts college in the desert of California, read this article or see this compilation of media coverage.) While there, Jonathan met Will Hunt, a second year student who subsequently committed to move to Sitka in the fall to join the effort to create a Deep Springs-inspired college on Sheldon Jackson Campus.

Full-time work to create Outer Coast began September 2015. A four-person principal team of Jonathan, Will, Stephanie Gilardi, and Javier Botero convened in Sitka, with several members uprooting their professional and personal lives to move to Sitka and devote themselves to the project. In mid-November, the team organized a two-day convening on the campus, bringing together collaborators from Sitka, Alaska, and the Lower 49 to contribute to the vision of Outer Coast.

In the fall of 2016, the principal team expanded to include Bryden Sweeney-Taylor, Cecilia Dumouchel, and Harry Choee. At that time, the core team of collaborators convened once more in Sitka to synthesize collective energy and develop a strategic vision for the project.

In October 2017, The team made the decision to “cross the Rubicon” and commit to launching the Outer Coast Summer Seminar in the summer of 2018. The application period closed with 43 applicants from across Alaska and the Lower 49. The inaugural Summer Seminar student body was sixteen strong with students hailing from Shishmaref, AK to South Pasadena, CA. The 2018 Summer Seminar was a great success, and there are plans for a bigger and better Summer Seminar in 2019. For more on this, please see the Summer Seminar page.

All aspects of the Outer Coast project are actively progressing through present (March 2016).