My turn: There are still opportunities in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I read Will Morris' article on Alaska's brain drain, "Alaskans more likely to skip or leave for college," in the Juneau Empire on Jan. 8, the morning after my 9-year-old daughter announced at the dinner table that she and her fourth-grade peers at Mendenhall River Community School all planned to leave Juneau for greener pastures once they finished high school.

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Why? Juneau nor Alaska had anything to offer them. Sure, Juneau is not for everyone (thankfully, or we'd be like Southern California), but there are opportunities in place for those brave few that choose to stay or return. By the way, I was pleasantly surprised at my 20th Juneau-Douglas High School class reunion last summer at the number of fellow alumni who are living and thriving in Juneau. And we felt sorry, quite frankly, for those who had to leave.

Like the majority of Alaska high school graduates, I succumbed to the desire to move south for college and ended up graduating from a large state university in the landlocked desert southwest (giving me a revitalized appreciation for the beautiful uniqueness of Alaska), but not before completing my freshman year at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Ultimately, I was too wimpy to stomach more than one Fairbanks winter, but I did enjoy excellent classes and professors, and intimate student-teacher ratios while at UAF.

I would like to suggest to Caitlin Goettler, the Juneau-Douglas High School freshman who wants to go into sports medicine, that she take a look, or a second look, at the WWAMI program before she decides on a medical school. I took advantage of the WWAMI program as a young college graduate and was able to get a top-notch medical education while saving tens of thousands of dollars had I gone to my second choice back East.

The WWAMI program is a state-subsidized student exchange program with Washington state that allows 10 Alaskans per year (soon to expand to 30) to enroll at the University of Washington School of Medicine. There are four other physicians now practicing in Juneau who graduated from the WWAMI program with me in the mid-1990s, along with dozens of other WWAMI graduates working throughout Alaska.

After finishing practice residency back East in 1998 (Providence's new family practice residency in Anchorage had not yet opened when I graduated in 1995), I easily found work in Alaska and have been blessed with gainful employment ever since. And, within five years of graduating from medical school, I was able to pay off my entire student loan debt, which was well over $100,000.

I can relate to today's multitude of Alaska youth who yearn to head south after high school But for those who choose to stay or return once their schooling is done, there are wonderful opportunities to succeed up here in the frozen North. Now if only we could do something about the cost of housing.

• Robert Haight is a Juneau resident.

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