A former exchange student is preparing for a career in international relations, after learning first-hand about colonialism during her year in Alaska.
Tessa Schindler studied at Sitka High School in 2015 and 2016. She’s since returned to her home in Germany to earn a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations, and is now studying for a Master’s in Peace Research.
She visited Sitka this summer to reconnect with the community and with her host family. She stopped by KCAW and spoke with Robert Woolsey about how her year in Sitka influenced her choice of careers.
KCAW: Tell me about your year in Sitka.
Schindler: I think it was the best year of my life. To be honest, I had a great host family, I’m still very much in contact with them. I’m staying with them right now. I consider my host dad my father, basically, my second father. I have two very great sisters here, who I’m spending the whole summer with. We have gone hiking a lot. And yeah, my year in Sitka was very much shaped by Sitka High School, because that was what I did most of the day. I feel like I really appreciated the school system here, because you have a lot more choices. In Germany you get assigned classes, and you can say yes or no. And here, I was able to take a lot more art classes, I was in the choir, I was able to take more history classes, which I was interested in. And then I did a lot of sports. So I did volleyball, I did cheer, I did track and field. And that really gave me a community where I made a lot of friends and got to travel the state a bit for all the competitions. So that was really fun.
KCAW: You also got something more. You were able to take the experience from Sitka, and go back to Germany and use it to propel you into your course of studies and your thoughts of career. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Schindler: Yes. So as I’ve mentioned, I got a political scholarship. And part of it was that we also met up in Washington, D.C., and we met some diplomats there. And that’s when I realized, like, ‘Oh, I not only enjoy talking about politics, maybe this is something I could do as a career?’ And then I looked into study programs more because I had two more years of high school in Germany. So I had some time to decide. And then I ended up studying international relations for my Bachelor’s. And now I’m doing my Master’s in Peace Research and International Relations. And I’ve actually written a seminar paper on Sitka, on the conflict that happened here many years ago. And it has very much shaped me. And I always tell people – well, it’s not the first thing I tell people, but some of it comes up – that I’ve lived in Alaska. And always people bombard me with questions and want to know more about it. And in general, I think, with the last president, the world has become quite interested in the U.S. And I felt like I was kind of like a cultural ambassador for both countries. So when I was here – when I am here – in the U.S. people ask me a lot of questions about Germany. And then when I’m in Germany, people consider me like the spokesperson for the US and I try my best to explain what’s happening.
KCAW: Since you wrote a thesis about it, I want to touch on the conflict in Sitka, because I’m sure a lot of people listening know that Sitka is a very historical place. We have a national park, after all, that was built to commemorate this conflict, this last battle between a European colonial power and the Indigenous people of North America. Do you use what happened in Sitka to inform the way you approach other conflicts in the world?
Schindler: Yes, I think especially with settler colonialism, it can be quite tricky. And I think all conflicts can be very hard to solve. But settler colonialism especially is something where I struggle with thinking about it, because I can understand that by now it’s home for both sides. But there is so much injustice and unfairness. And it’s really hard to wrap your head around it and to find a solution for everyone. But basically, in my paper I was talking about the need for apologies, and the importance of apologies, and recognizing what was happening and how racism persisted to today. And I think especially now with the death of the Queen (Elizabeth II) last year we were having a whole new debate, especially in Canada, with reparations and apologies, residential schools. So when I heard and read a lot about Canada, I immediately went back to Sitka, and my mind was like, ‘Yeah, residential schools were also here,’ and a big issue. And the trauma persists to today. And yeah, so my mind goes back to quite a lot. Yeah.
KCAW: What about after your Master’s Degree – what then?
Schindler: I could see myself, because I’m still young and I don’t have a family or anything yet myself, I could see myself moving abroad, and maybe going to a region of conflict to do some fieldwork and work on the ground. But then eventually, I think I would want to work for an NGO, or a nonprofit, maybe in Germany, maybe somewhere else. And yeah, try to analyze conflicts there and maybe mediation could also be something I could get into.
KCAW: I’m very, very glad to hear that.
Schindler: Thank you.
KCAW: And I’m glad that Sitka played a role in helping propel you in this direction.
Schindler: Oh yeah, I’m very glad I made the choice to come here and that it ended up being Sitka of all places.