Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

High school students come to Haines from around the country


July 7, 2022

Ten exceptional high school students from around the country will converge on Haines for a week beginning Sunday as part of a college-credit course led by resident Natalie Dawson.

The students are participants in the Student Diplomacy Corps, a nomination-based and scholarship-funded program that aims to prepare underserved – but remarkably accomplished -- high school students for the transition to college.

In previous years, the program has sent 170 “student diplomats” each summer to 20 locations in 11 countries. This year’s program in Southeast is the first inside the U.S., but associate director Breeze Willis said they have been scoping out locations in Alaska for the past five years. “I think Alaska is the most ‘abroad’ you can go (without actually leaving) the United States,” he joked.

The students hail from across the country, with most coming from urban centers on the East Coast. The Haines cohort also includes one student from Uzbekistan and one from Bolivia.

All participants were nominated by teachers and selected because of high achievement in a particular domain. “It doesn’t just have to be academic (achievement),” Willis said. “They could be a leader of climate activism, a football superstar or an amazing violinist.”

The program’s rigorous admissions process is designed to mimic the Common App, the application process used by nearly all American colleges and universities which requires teacher references, an interview, a longer personal statement and several shorter essays. One hundred percent of students admitted to the corps receive scholarship funding, with an average coverage rate of 80% of program costs.

Beyond its faraway feeling, Willis said Alaska seemed an attractive location for a domestic site because of the Native communities here. Several other Student Diplomacy Corps programs already focus on TEK, or Traditional Environmental Knowledge, with one especially successful course bringing students to New Zealand/Aotearoa to learn about language recovery and cultural revitalization in Māori communities. The organization’s leadership is excited to develop similar programming in Alaska.

Dawson, an experienced educator with a Ph.D. in wildlife biology, is leading a course called “Alaska: Biogeography and Climate Change in the Last Frontier.” The syllabus combines a rigorous traditional science curriculum and field ecology with experiential place-based programming.

The itinerary includes two nights at Halsingland Hotel, camping at Chilkoot Lake, a visit to Klukwan village and an overnight backpacking trip near Mount Ripinsky. When not busy with homework, students will fly fish on the Chilkoot River, perform water quality sampling with the Takshanuk Watershed Council and take a tour of Haines Packing Co. to learn about the importance of salmon to the local economy.

Dawson said Haines’ location and history make it the ideal location for a course like this. “Because we’re on the border between Interior Alaska and the coastal temperate rainforests, we are a corridor of human travel and migration that has gone on for thousands of years, and also a corridor for other animal travel that is novel in the rest of the region,” Dawson said. “It’s exciting to introduce students to concepts in biology and ecology in a place that is so rich.”

From Haines, the students will head to the Tidelines Institute’s campus on the Inian Islands, about 75 miles southwest of Haines, for a week before finishing their tour of the Southeast archipelago with a few days at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp.

After completing the program, they will earn college credit from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Willis said he expects the program in Southeast Alaska to run indefinitely. “Ideally there will be generations of diplomat students coming to Haines every single summer,” he said.


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