Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

It’s O.K., It’s Alaska!

By L. Byrd

I committed several weeks ago to a member of the Board, that I would submit an article for the blog. Naturally, those weeks flew past as I considered some topics: Education in a Changing Political Climate (I am not emotionally prepared for that at this time); How to “Unplug” and Still Meet Students’ Needs (is this about technology or de-stressing?); Children in Non-Family Housing (am I just complaining now, or do I have something useful to say?). Finally, I found something that is hopefully a little fun and also informative…

A little over four years ago, I moved to Soldotna, Alaska to join my former supervisor in developing and running the brand new 96-bed, suite-style residence hall at Kenai Peninsula College. KPC, a community campus of University Alaska at Anchorage, is a rural commuter campus of roughly 2,000 total students from the lower 48 and all over Alaska, including the bush. “The bush” is pretty much any village or town located off-the-road-system, often times requiring multiple flights, boats, or even atvs to reach. Our nearest Costco is 3 hours away in Anchorage and nearest Whole foods is 44 hours away in West Vancouver (per Google).

This is quite unlike my previous “rural” campus in northeastern Oklahoma. It was situated about an hour and a half from the nearest Costco & Whole foods. During my time there, it had a total student population of over 10,000 and nine residence halls with a bed capacity of more than 1,600 beds (I know, it’s still tiny to some of you folks!).

We had a professional Housing and Residence Life Staff of 12 (plus 21 facilities and custodial staff). Here at KPC, we have 2.5 full time professional staff to run our entire operation. The responsibilities of the 2 include all aspects of Housing and Residence Life: staff recruitment, selection, supervision, training, programming, case management, conduct (including Title 9), facilities management, office management, accounting, budgets, conferences, custodial management and all-encompassing custodial duties (and then some!). The responsibilities of the “.5” includes any professional level maintenance (as needed and on borrowed time).

There are surely a lot of challenges to a two person Pro-staff: being on duty half the time, never ending to-do lists, and more work than time. But, it also has its advantages: more autonomy about the direction of the department, more flexibility, and we are truly student oriented – all other staff positions are occupied by student workers: front desk, custodial, maintenance.

We also face some pretty unique situations being so far removed (maybe our mountainous neighbors can relate?). We have wildlife warning signs on the door, mostly for moose sightings, but occasionally a bear or lynx will wonder on to the property. I have now lost count of the amount of times we have  watched moose try to come inside, eat all our plants on the other side of our windows, and escort students to class. At my previous school we worried about squirrels and stray cats! We have too many eagles here, they would never make it.

At my previous institution, absolutely any form of weapon was forbidden – and is still the case here in the buildings and on campus property, but students are allowed to keep them in their vehicles. The first time I saw a rifle in the window of a student’s vehicle, I stopped in my tracks and my heart skipped a beat. But, it’s ok, its Alaska!

Even being in the Southcentral part of Alaska, and coastal, we still deal with the difficult weather that winter brings. Snow is NOT a big deal, at all. It is the ice that is the real monster. In the winter, once the first real snow hits and sticks, we hope to stay below freezing as to keep the ice at bay, cause once we get it – we keep it from about mid-late October through mid-March, and sometimes on into May even. Some choose to don “spikies” to keep from breaking bones in a slip and fall.

The cold is really relative. I used to think 60* was cold. Now, I can wear flip flops at 38*. It’s not REALLY cold until your boogers start to freeze (around 12* and below). It actually has to warm up to snow sometimes. It’s not too bad though, we all know to bundle up and be safe, and I come home to in-floor heating and a large fireplace in the commons.

Winter also brings with it several other challenges, largely mental health related, not because of the cold really, but the darkness. As I write this, we have just over 7 hours of dailyight and the sun sets around 4:30. At our shortest, we will have about 5 hours of actual sun, which is full of 5 o’clock shadows due to its position on the horizon. Some of us deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder and have to get “happy lights”. Some try to combat it with fun winter activities as well.  Which is great, but our students face the additional challenge of where to store their snow machines, atvs, sleds, and summer tires. But the aurora borealis is the real show stopper. We can go out to our pavilion and turn of the outside lights, start up the fire pit, and watch the greens dance in the sky most nights. The term “the lights are out” does not mean that the power has gone off.

We don’t get all the seasons the way the lower-48 does. We have “winter” (October-March/April), “break up”/spring (April-may) and “fishing season”/summer/tourist season (May – August). Fall lasts for about 2 weeks in September. You can tell its fall because the winds start to knock out power and several of our coworkers take 2-4 weeks off to go hunting. Many folks rely on subsistence hunting and fishing in our area.

Oh, but summer! Despite having to share it with visitors, who are a great boost to our local economy, it is a short, but jovial time! We gain up to 21 hours of daylight in the summer, with the remainder being more twilight than total darkness. Alaska comes to life in the summer in a way I have never seen anywhere else. The people here truly appreciate the outdoors in a way that give you hope for the relationship between humans and nature. For those who still value sleeping in the dark, nothing is better than blackout curtains.

I discovered that not all shopping is created equal here – pots for flowers and box fans seem to be seasonal items, so buy them in the summer, once the stores run out, you will be waiting a while or paying exorbitant shipping prices. Our cable dishes appear to point at the ground as our latitude requires a bit of a downward angle to reach most US satellites. We had to cut a straight line across some of our spruce trees so that we could get a clear signal for the reshall cable service. Coffees stands are on every corner here, like snow cone stands back in OK. Prices are surprisingly comparative, minus convenience items (those WILL cost you). One of my former RAs worked in a place called Naknak this summer, one bag of Nachos Doritos cost $9.50 and a gallon of milk was $14! Luckily, we are located on the road system, so our Doritos are about $4/bag and milk is $3.89.

I know this hasn’t been a typical NWACUHO article, and it hasn’t really helped you at your institution or offered any advice, but sometimes it’s fun to just read something that shows you a new side of life, right? Now, I’m off to check bear mace expiration dates!

Leslie Byrd is the Residence Life Coordinator at Kenai Peninsula College. She was worked in Residence Life for 9 professional years; 3 undergrad. She really enjoys the variety presented by working with students and the ability to use creativity in her work. Her favorite thing about Alaska is the midnight sun and opportunity for adventure. In her free time she paints (check out Leslie Byrd Painter on fb if you have a minute!).

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