Finding home in Alaska

Tasha Elizarde (Courtesy Photo)

This past week, I’ve been hopping around the country, visiting schools that I could be attending in the fall. While I want to be excited for what’s coming next, there’s been a sense of finality as I visit colleges — this time of year signals the end of my gap year and the beginning of my transition back into school after graduating from Juneau-Douglas High School last year.

 

For me, the end of my gap year also means I’ll be leaving Alaska soon, the state I’ve grown to love and wish to advocate for.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized how important my home was to me. In high school, it was easy to get lost and not fully understand who I was or what I was passionate about. I was the type of student who during class, would be writing her next column or sending out emails for the next project she was working on while the teacher gave us a lecture on how Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” was a gamechanger for its time. While the topic was interesting, it seemed to lack the real-world context that I needed in order to be fully engaged in the subject.

Taking a gap year before entering college allowed me to step out of the bubble, observe, re-enter it with a fresh perspective, and notice how I include my home in everything I do. For the first part of my year, I worked at a law firm in Louisiana and worked in a small town bordering the highway exiting New Orleans. There, I was exposed to the nuances of small-town life, which seemed to parallel life in Juneau. On one of my rides heading into the city, my Uber driver and I compared the lives we led living in seemingly different worlds. He spoke to me about his home’s problems; he didn’t like that the Louisiana economy was driven by oil, and that his fishing company was endangered by energy development in the area. He talked about what it was like moving to Louisiana from Vietnam and how much he loves it here, but as he gestured to a camp of homeless people settled under the bridge we drove under, he noted that he wished his home would do better for the people that live there.

My time there made me think about Alaska, and how I shared many of the driver’s conflicted feelings about my own home town. When I arrived back in Alaska in the spring after traveling around Southeast Asia, I was given the chance to investigate these feelings fully as I participated in the University of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens Legislative Internship program. Examining Alaska policy, looking at problems impacting our state, and learning from Alaskans with the state’s interests at heart, I was able to examine what drew me to think about Alaska wherever I go.

I found that growing up in Juneau gave me two things: the desire to leave and the desire to return. Recently, I attended the Arctic Encounters Symposium, a conference for arctic leaders to discuss the problems impacting the arctic. The group I’m a part of, Arctic Youth Ambassadors, is a U.S.-funded program aimed at elevating the voices of young Alaskans and giving them the ability to speak about the issues impacting the arctic from our perspective. I was able to absorb experiences from my friends from Shishmaref to Unalaska, and empathize with the issues impacting their hometowns. At one point during the conference, our group met with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and as she listened, my friends spoke about erosion, the decline of Alaska Native languages, and the problem of alcohol abuse and suicide in their communities.

Yet, we all shared a common love for where we’re from and as I reflect on my gap year, I find my passion in improving my home. With my gap year, I was able to grow outside of the place I’ve spent 19 years of my life, and I understand that’s why I need to leave Alaska again for college: to grow apart from and gain an appreciation for the place I hope to help in the future.

Before leaving though, I will be traveling around Alaska for a month. My goal is to understand and develop a better context for what I’ll be studying for — how to work toward improving Alaska — when I attend Mount Holyoke College in the fall.

It was in the Philippines, the country where my parents were raised, that I met a 70-year-old Australian man that inspired my trip. While touring the islands of Coron, he told me about the time he met a German hitchhiker and how together, they hitched their way farther north than Fairbanks during his first solo trip. Somewhere along the way, the pair built a cabin in a remote section of the woods, where it still stands today.

I loved his story because I take pride knowing that strangers from across the world know Alaska just as I do: a place of beautiful memories, friendship and adventure. While I’m leaving soon, I’ll be back in just as short of an amount of time. After all, Alaska is where I call home.


• Tasha Elizarde is a recent high school graduate living in Juneau. Contact her at Tasha.elizarde@gmail.com.


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