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Blugold’s semester in Alaska opens doors in conservation, guiding and outdoor education

| Judy Berthiaume

When Lauren Stepanik walked into a National Student Exchange program meeting as a UW-Eau Claire freshman she had no way of knowing just how much the program would change her life.

Since she was a young girl, Lauren has been intrigued by the idea of visiting Alaska thanks to the colorful stories her grandfather shared about his time there during World War II.

So when she learned at the NSE meeting that the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau was among the places she could study through the program, she knew it was the perfect opportunity to experience a place that she’d heard so much about throughout her childhood.

The university in Juneau is among the nearly 200 universities in 49 states, U.S. territories and Canada that participate in the NSE program, a program that allows Blugolds to maintain their status at UW-Eau Claire while spending a semester or academic year at their chosen host institution and pay UW-Eau Claire tuition and fees.

Now a senior, Lauren says her time studying in Alaska fostered new interests and connected her with people from all over the world, experiences that changed her life.

Since completing her NSE semester in Alaska as a sophomore, the Wausau native has returned to Juneau for three summers to work as an intern and to pursue other interests and opportunities.

As Lauren prepares to graduate this month with a degree in special education with an emphasis in learning disabilities and middle childhood/early adolescence, she took a few minutes to talk about how her time in Alaska enhanced her entire college experience and is helping to shape her future.

What drew you to the NSE program and, specifically, the campus in Alaska?

I knew that I wanted to go to Alaska because my grandpa always talked about it. He was stationed in Sitka, Alaska, for WWII. I’ll never forget the stories and feelings he expressed from the sail north through the Inside Passage. He always wanted to bring his grandkids up there, but never could. I wanted to check out Juneau because of how my grandpa described Southeast Alaska and its beauty.

UWEC offered me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will forever be grateful for.

What were the highlights of your semester studying in Juneau?

Studying in Alaska was the supreme monumental change in my life.

My experiences have opened countless doors for me in conservation, guiding and outdoor education for my future.

During my semester in Juneau I took a sea kayaking course. We went on excursions to test our knowledge and practice of kayaking skills.

One night we set up camp on a gorgeous beach and it was very cloudy. The next morning, I awoke to the sounds of humpback whales in the channel. There was an absolutely gorgeous sunrise in a clear sky and crisp feel in the air. I left the tent and watched a group of whales and harbor seals in the channel. The sounds I heard were the whales’ blowholes as they came up to breathe.

I remember thinking about my grandpa and his feelings about the mountains, islands, water and wildlife, and that moment captured it all.

I learned that semester that no one truly knows who he or she is unless they are challenged in some way.

I’d never sea kayaked, summited a mountain peak or snowboarded with avalanche equipment prior to NSE. I was able to do these and more in just four months.

What did you do during your summers in Alaska?

I’ve returned to Juneau every summer since my sophomore year.

In 2013 I was an environmental education intern through the USDA Forest Service, Student Conservation Association and AmeriCorps. I co-led a summer day camp for children ages 9-13 and taught outdoor/conservation education in the recreation area of the Mendenhall Glacier of Juneau.

The next summer I worked for a local guiding company called Above and Beyond Alaska. I worked at a sea kayaking shop and as a sea kayaking tour guide.

Last summer, I returned to work as an outdoor guide. I guided groups of people to trek on the Mendenhall Glacier to see ice caves and other glacial features. I did overnight kayaking trips with youth as well.

These jobs had no direct ties to UWEC, but the experiences that qualified me to get the jobs came from outdoor studies courses that I took during my NSE semester.

Share a few highlights from your summers in Alaska.

During my internship in Alaska I gained experience in the outdoors with children. They’re naturally better learners in the outdoors because of their inherent interest to play and the sensory experience that happens outside of walls.

We were never indoors and we endured all sorts of weather while continually learning and discovering the landscape.

During the camp, I taught plant succession when we hiked near the Mendenhall Glacier. Teaching this in a glacial zone was more exciting than any way I could teach it from a book back home. We also were able to plant radio telemetry devices in sockeye salmon to help the Department of Fish and Game with research.

Some of our crafting experiences included making jelly from the tips of spruce trees and dying clothes with the juice of wild blueberries.

Other highlights from my time in Juneau were with my job in guiding. I was able to fly in a helicopter and guide on another glacier in Juneau. I’ve traveled in floatplanes to Admiralty Island, which is home to the largest density of brown bears in North America.

I’ve led sea kayaking trips and observed wildlife from our boats, such as coastal brown bears, eagles, humpback whales, seals and sea lions to name a few.

And I’ve been able to meet and guide people from all over the world who travel to Juneau to see what it’s all about.

How did the opportunities offered by NSE enhance your overall college experience?

It definitely changed my life!

In Alaska I attended a small campus and became close with people from all over the globe. I gained a level of ability to navigate new systems and cultures by being immersed in Native Alaska cultures and other languages.

The experience gave me the advantage of new courses and resources that broadened my education. I returned to UW-Eau Claire with a new and higher level of maturity and confidence that I never believed possible in such a short time.

This opportunity was life changing because of the people I met, the connections I made with nature and the world around me, and the determination I have as an individual to excel.

All of this will make me a unique teacher because of the skills in decision-making, flexibility, collaboration and leadership that I gained.

What are your plans for the future?

I’ve dreamed of becoming an elementary school teacher since third grade when I had an incredible teacher myself.

When I came to UWEC, I didn’t have any clue what minor to choose. My adviser told me about special education and that I could do a comprehensive major. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it was one the best decisions I have made.

I’m passionate about working with individuals with disabilities and I’m thankful for the experiences I have had in this major. I see myself working in a general education or a special education classroom.

I’m yearning to leave Wisconsin and teach in another part of the world, whether it be Alaska, the Pacific Northwest or anywhere with mountains.

I would absolutely love to teach outdoor/conservation education in an area that creates ample opportunities for exploration and discovery.

I’m also interested in working on a Native American reservation or in a rural area of the country that is challenged by lower socioeconomic status and available resources.

Also, I aim to further my experience in the outdoors and earn a certificate as a Wilderness First Responder and/or Wilderness EMT. I’d love to use this knowledge to expand my work with individuals of all ages in the outdoors.

I’d love to combine what I learned in Alaska with what I’ve learned from UWEC to enhance individuals’ experiences in the outdoors. It would be rewarding to work with individuals with disabilities in the outdoors or even in wilderness therapy.

Overall, I hope to use my unique experiences to further diversify my teaching.

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire student Lauren Stepanik with a friend in Alaska.