Rethinking the college experience in Sitka

Sitting down to a hot meal of baked salmon, freshly caught by fellow students in nearby Sitka Sound is part of the plan — and experience — of attending Outer Coast College.

 

Students will catch and harvest local foods when possible, prepare meals, wash dishes and clean the dining hall. Student labor, coupled with community service, is one of three pillars supporting a new model for higher education being developed in Sitka. The other two pillars — academics and self-governance — round out this unique college experience, where students take ownership of their education.

A team of energetic, compassionate and motivated young professionals have come together to reimagine college. This group includes education advocates, students, community organizers, politicians, a lawyer and a film producer. Through diligent research and thoughtful planning, they’ve assembled successful pieces of existing colleges, focused on what’s best for students and gave the whole project an Alaskan spin.

“I had been thinking about models of higher education for some time prior to July 2014, including — perhaps obviously — as a student at college, and felt very motivated and excited about innovating new models,” said Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Founder and Board Chair and member of the Alaska House of Representatives (D-Sitka). “I was also excited about the role such an institution could play in Sitka and Alaska.”

Kreiss-Tomkins and the Outer Coast team envisioned an institution where students seek more from college than academic qualifications enabling employment after graduation. Rather, the founding team sought to return to the roots of the college experience: education as inspiration to empower change. Through mandatory involvement in everything from mundane custodial work to hiring faculty and admitting incoming students, Outer Coast students will be active participants in their learning. With rigorous, interactive academic coursework and continual involvement in the local community, students will mature during their two years in the program. The expectation is that graduates leave not only with an associate’s degree, but with the discipline to work hard, confidence in their ability to affect change in the world, and the support of an inspiring community.

“The hope for Outer Coast is that as an institution it can bring talented, high potential young people from across the state together and connect them in meaningful ways,” said Bryden Sweeney-Taylor, the Project Lead. “At the same time, we hope to expand their horizons for what their opportunities might be and what they can contribute to the lives of their families, communities and the world at large.”

Sweeney-Taylor is a graduate of Harvard and Deep Springs, a college that most closely embodies Outer Coast’s framework. At Deep Springs in the California desert, students also participate in rigorous academics while working on the school’s cattle ranch. They are encouraged and expected to be service-oriented. Celebrating its 100 year anniversary last year and with graduates contributing to science, education, medicine and many other disciplines, Deep Springs’s legacy is an inspiration to the Outer Coast team.

“We were looking for ways to replicate the best parts of Deep Springs,” Sweeney-Taylor said. “We want to empower students to have ownership over their education and learning.”

Another Core Team Member, Erin Slomski-Pritz, is a Sitka Winter Fellow working on the logistics of starting Outer Coast. She graduated from Whitman College in Washington.

“I started at a bigger state university then transferred to a smaller liberal arts college. I really benefitted from being in a different environment where the education was more personal and you could have more of a relationship with your professors,” she said. “So the academic piece spoke to me. It’s gotten more exciting the more I’ve learned about it.”

Slomski-Pritz has been working hard this year to help launch the first Outer Coast program: Summer Seminar 2018. In this one month summer session, a diverse group of rising high school juniors and seniors will convene in Sitka in July for a taste of what the Outer Coast experience will be like.

They will complete one intense college-level course while working on campus as well as volunteering in the community with a meaningful service project.

“This summer is the first manifestation of Outer Coast and there are a lot of unknowns,” Slomski-Pritz said. “You put out the applications and hope to find good matches. We found a really incredible faculty team to teach the summer seminar and that was a wonderful, surprising moment when it came together.”

With more applicants than available spots, the Outer Coast team has their work cut out, narrowing down participants from a talented, qualified applicant pool. Sweeney-Taylor said the number of applicants reflects their efforts to network across the state, reaching out to students in communities with more limited education resources. The school has a stated objective to recruit Alaska Natives.

“Our goal is reaching a significant number of Alaska Natives, rural Alaskans, underserved and underrepresented populations. Outer Coast can really serve as a launchpad, a springboard for those students, give them the opportunity that more affluent, better resourced students historically have had,” Slomski-Pritz said. “We want to use the institution in that way to open doors. Not only build relationships, but mobilize students from those underrepresented backgrounds to take advantage of the opportunities they’ve earned and make the most from their potential.”

Outer Coast Summer Seminar students will convene on the historic Sheldon Jackson campus, home of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp (SFAC). With long range vision, bold SFAC leadership and tremendous community volunteerism, in the last decade, the campus has gone from a deteriorating, closed college campus to a renovated, thriving hub for education and the arts. The partnership between Alaska Arts Southeast, Inc. (parent organization of SFAC) and Outer Coast is still being negotiated, but the Outer Coast team envisions a winter home on the campus.

“The Sheldon Jackson campus has a complicated history and one that we want to face head on,” said Sweeney-Taylor. Founded in 1878, Sheldon Jackson College was originally a school for Alaska Native boys where indigenous culture was repressed.

“A lot of people have mixed emotions about Sheldon Jackson. We want to recognize the element of Sheldon Jackson that brought people together and built bonds over the years,” he said. “We can continue that legacy, while at the same time begin a new legacy that speaks to a sense of ownership and empowerment for the Alaska Native community over their own educational trajectories and their own aspirations in life.”

The founding team believes Outer Coast’s location is integral to the school’s identity. They imagine the energy of the campus, Sitka and Southeast will provide an ideal home for college students yearning to grow.

“Southeast is a pretty magical place that has brought together a lot of people who are thinking about what place means for the world more broadly,” Sweeney-Taylor said. “Sitka is a unique community where the people are thinking about not only what it means to be living in that place as an individual but what it means to be a part of that community. We see Outer Coast as having a real opportunity to be part of that community and the larger Southeast community and to contribute in a meaningful way. It is a special place and opportunity to think what stewardship can mean for our students and for the institution.”

The Outer Coast team’s goal for 2018 is to gather as many perspectives on the project as possible and adjust where needed to position the school for success. After evaluating how the Summer Seminar went later this year, the team hopes to welcome the first college class in the fall of 2020.

“We have so much to learn from the incredible resources in Sitka and Southeast Alaska,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what are the most effective ways to tap into those resources, really benefit from that perspective and make people really feel like they are informed but also, like they have a role to play. It will only be as successful as the community is invested in the project and feels like it’s not something from the outside, but this is part and parcel of what it means to be of Sitka, of Southeast.”

For more information, visit outercoast.org.

H.W. Murphy is a freelance writer living in Sitka.


• H.W. Murphy is a freelance writer living in Sitka.


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