Bittersweet graduation comes to GeoFORCE's first class
Story by Meghan Murphy, photos by Colby Wright
A trip to the Rocky Mountains this summer offered a field of contrasts for rural Alaska teens in GeoFORCE Alaska, a four-year geology program offered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
And we’re not just talking about the sweet and salty snacks the students enjoyed between field stops. This was the final trip for the 18 students who graduated on July 31. So the mountain exploration brought happiness and sadness. It provoked reflections about their first trip versus their final.
“It’s been an amazing experience, and I’m just very happy to have done this,” said Monika Valdez from Barrow. “It’s very sad that it’s ending, but I know I will do more adventures and I’ll go back to the places we went to and know all about them.”
For the last four years, the first class of students, all from Alaska’s North Slope villages, traveled across the nation to explore the Earth through its sediments, volcanoes, glaciers, gorges and canyons.
The experience enriched their understanding of not only the wider world but also of the environment close to their home villages.
“In the Native culture, nature is very important. It’s the key of life,” said Jerry Brower, of Nuiqsut. “But I didn’t actually understand why this happened or why that happened — why I got stuck (in a boat) on this turn on the river but not this turn. But now, after GeoFORCE, it opened my eyes to why things happened.”
In the first summer, 2012, students wandered through Alaska, tracing the journeys of glacial sediments. In the second year, they visited the American Southwest, traveling by bus with stops in the Grand Canyon and areas where erosion has exposed ancient layered rock. In year three, they studied volcanoes in Washington and Oregon. The final trip to the Rocky Mountains this summer included a visit to the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park.
GeoFORCE, which is free to participants, seeks to interest rural and minority students in science and mathematics. Students come from rural areas where Alaska Natives make up most of the student population. The idea is to increase the diversity of Alaska’s science and mathematics workforce. A new group of freshmen students will start next year.
"We need these students,” said UAF Associate Professor Sarah Fowell, GeoFORCE Alaska program director. “They have diverse interests, opinions and perspectives that can help move science forward. And students from the North Slope communities are uniquely qualified to make decisions that balance development, cultural and natural resources."
The program is modeled after GeoFORCE Texas, which was so successful that sponsors approached UAF to start it in Alaska. The program, housed in the Geosciences Department within the College of Natural Science and Mathematics, is entirely funded through donations.
Anne Rittgers, GeoFORCE Alaska program coordinator, said although this class is graduating, she thinks they’ll still hear from the students.
“GeoFORCE is like a family, and I think we’ll stay connected,” she said. “And it’s a big family. In it are all the people who made this program successful, from counselors to instructors to sponsors to even the people who managed our airlines reservations. To them, I say thank you!”