CSC students explore Alaskan culture

Chadron State Study Away Graphic

Photo by Katie Whalen

Students chatter inside a nondescript classroom, their voices carrying down the hall. One makes a small reference to a musher and the rest chime in with a reminiscent gleam in their eyes. These 19 students and three teachers have just returned from Alaska, where they spent a snowy nine days exploring the 49th state.

The crew of students, composed of agriculture, art, FCS, and business majors, left Feb. 29th and returned March 9th. Despite their crammed itinerary and avid curiosity, they only saw, as Dr. Butterfield said, “a small fraction of Alaska”. By far the largest state, if Alaska were placed across the U.S. its southern tail would touch Florida while the most western islands would bridge California. There’s a lot to see. Fortunately for the students, the contingency met weekly since January and discussed Alaskan wildlife, ecosystems, culture, and history. These lectures supplemented the Alaska trip, which provided students with three credit hours toward graduation.

The group’s three supervisors, Chuck Butterfield, professor of applied sciences; Yvonne Moody, associate professor of applied sciences; and Mary Donahue, associate professor of visual and performing arts, orchestrated the journey around the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, where stoic teams of man and dog pit their wills against nature. The race, now in its 40th year, relies on volunteer dog handlers to manage the mushers’ teams of 12-16 dogs. This year, Chadron’s students volunteered to do just that. The students handled dogs at the Iditarod’s official starting point in Willow, Alaska, putting them behind the scene of “The Last Great Race on Earth.”

Darren Burrows, a junior of Columbus, said his favorite part of the trip was being “up-close with the mushers.” These athletes were about to drive 1,112 miles across frozen terrain, but the students described them as helpful and friendly.

“We received special credentials to be in the team area all day.” Burrows said. But those credentials weren’t free. On the trip’s second day, students received special dog-handling training, a video of which can be seen on the trip’s Facebook page: Chadron State College – Study Away: Alaska. The page also features “count-down to Alaska” photos, where topics of Alaskan culture and history are showcased.

The group also experienced a bevy of scientific and artistic adventures. They walked street art shows, toured Anchorage’s museum, attended a drumming festival, visited a musk ox farm, and investigated the Tsunami Warning Center.

A particularly valuable, and completely unscheduled treat came when Alaskan natives sat down to swap stories with the students during their visit to the Willie Templeton Native People Corporation. Some of the Alaskans admitted they had never seen a cornfield, or even a horse, while Chadron’s students were eager to hear about life in rural Alaskan villages.

As the stories turned to Alaska’s attractions,  Moody mentioned the joys of seeing moose in a restaurant parking lot. The students responded by recounting further treasured moments. According to Burrows, the group visited a town with 350 inches of annual snowfall, which makes Chadron’s dry winter look anemic. The students described wrangling the dogs and how the hardiest hounds literally dragged their towlines, with the handlers still attached, through the snow.

Butterfield encapsulated the trip well when he said, “we snuck learning in on them when they weren’t looking.” None of the students looked like they had just returned from a ten day-long class, but they certainly touted the experiences of one.

All these memories cost the average student $1,700, plus meals. Butterfield said the trip  poised no organizational road-blocks, since he already had contacts in the area from the school’s trip there in 2008.

“The trip was truly interdisciplinary,” said Butterfield, “the students learned everything from how to clean seeds to how to pet a moose.”

Most valuable, however, Moody said that the group of students departed Chadron as strangers, and returned as friends. Moody said of her students, “it was exciting to watch them all grow.”


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