Outer Coast student Isaiah Bowen-Karlyn cleans the tanks at Sitka Sound Science Center’s hatchery. “I really wanted something that was hands on,” Bowen-Karlyn said. “I definitely feel a lot of value and need and intention when I am working in a space that has real consequences and a certain type of physicality to it that doing online work does not have.” (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

While many college students around the country are attending class virtually this fall, a group of students in Sitka is getting an in-person college experience. A new program called the Outer Coast Year wants to provide an alternative to more conventional institutions for higher education during the pandemic and beyond.

Eighteen-year-old Isaiah Bowen-Karyln dips a scrub brush into a large round tank that swirls with young salmon. He’s volunteering at the Sitka Sound Science Center’s hatchery as part of his service project for the Outer Coast program. He cleans the tanks, checks on the water levels and helps out with egg incubation.

“It is not all that exciting sometimes,” he says. “But I am super grateful that I’m able to be here and feel like I’m actually physically doing something.”

He knows that his experience living in a dorm, cooking with his peers, and taking in-person classes is a special one right now. He feels a bit guilty when he talks to his friends from high school, who are almost all taking classes virtually. And that’s what Bowen-Karlyn would’ve done too if he’d gone to a four-year university in the fall like he planned, but the pandemic made him pivot.

“I learn so much from my other peers in so many different settings that I think a lot of the value of my classes would be taken out if I didn’t have the opportunity to have these really casual conversations with other students that just arise when you’re living in the same space together,” he says.

Outer Coast was originally founded in 2015 by Sitka Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins and three others and has hosted summer seminars and programs for high schoolers in the past. But this is the first program that will last a full academic year. Program Coordinator Johnny Elliott says when the pandemic hit in the spring, they weren’t sure if they could make it work, but protocols like regular testing, “germ pods,” and relative physical isolation from people outside the program mean they’ve been able to run it much like they were planning pre-pandemic.

“As we began to understand the pandemic more, we made the decision that it would be safe to run a program of 14 students with the right sort of preparation,” Elliott said.

Program coordinator Johnny Elliott stands in front of a map of Alaska Native languages in the Outer Coast classroom on the old Sheldon Jackson College campus. The College went bankrupt in 2007 and the campus was divided among the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, the Sitka Music Festival, and the Sitka Sound Science Center. Outer Coast hopes to base their two-year college on the campus too. “There’s still nine months out of the year where there are a lot of buildings that are unused or underutilized,” Elliott said. “And it’s such a beautiful campus and it would be exciting to use it to the full potential that is has.” (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

But the fact that Outer Coast is operating in person right now isn’t the only reason it’s unique. The educational model is different too. The founders shaped the program using the distinctive, century-old Deep Springs College in California as a template. Their two-year curriculum centers around academics, student self-governance, and manual labor.

Eventually, Outer Coast hopes to expand into a similar two-year accredited liberal arts college that serves as an antidote to many of the problems they see with more traditional institutions, like a disconnect from the local community. Spending a large chunk of time on service projects like Bowen-Karlyn’s are a required part of the curriculum.

“A lot of colleges really do become bubbles in the communities that they are in and not sort of a greater recognition of the institutions and structures of their location,” Elliott said.

Outer Coast’s model also addresses college affordability issues. They only ask students to pay what they can, and they make up the rest of the cost with donations. Tuition for this semester’s students range from $100 to $12,000. 

Student Jing O’Brien said that’s a stark contrast from schools she applied to in the spring. She grew up in Wrangell, was supposed to head to Loyola University this fall in Chicago, and never imagined sticking around Alaska. But then she learned classes would be online, and she deferred.

“I didn’t want to pay full tuition for a college experience that was only one element of the college experience,” she said.

The students have come from across the state and the country to take the same class four days a week for seven weeks. They also cook and clean for one another, hold weekly storytelling sessions, attend Indigenous studies and anti-racism classes, and play an active role in the running of the program. They even helped decide how to operate during the pandemic and worked with staff to make admissions decisions.

“Like you can really honestly change any part of the program if you wanted to, and that has been so eye-opening and I really am wondering if a conventional college,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think will be anything like that where students and staff work toward a common goal together.”

She said she’s now re-thinking her college decision for next year and might choose someplace smaller where she can join a tight-knit community like the one she’s in now.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.