Two years ago today, I arrived in Oregon, fresh off the plane from Alaska. I was coming straight out of my summer season as a park ranger in Denali. I had just two bags, one of which was filled with my uniforms, the other, some civilian clothes and camping gear. I was about to start graduate school and I had no idea what I was in for.
One of the biggest challenges I faced in those first few months (besides remembering how to use a calendar and a weekly planner again), was grappling with my identity. For the past 3 years, I had been a seasonal park ranger. When I arrived in Oregon, I was still a park ranger. I didn’t know what else to call myself. I didn’t want to let go of that part of me that had defined every moment of my life for the past few years and even shaped my decision to go back to school for a master’s degree.
When I arrived at grad school, I was also starkly aware that I was one of just 6 master’s students who’d made the cut out of all the applicants, and I felt uncomfortably out of place. I was surrounded by brilliant scholars from around the country who used words like “petroculture” and “problematic” and “discourse” and “ontology” and at first I was unfairly critical of the academic bubble. Slowly over time though, I was involuntarily enveloped by this bubble, and found myself using some of that lofty language myself. I realized that while academia has a shifty habit of cutting one off from the “real world,” it also gives you new tools and language with which to engage with the real world in ways I had never been able to before.
The challenge became how to make the most of my academic experience, while not losing site of why I was there, and how I could make my very privileged experience benefit the rest of the world in some way.
When I first started, I remember thinking that I was just looking to get my degree and get out (I’m rather embarrassed to admit this now). What I didn’t anticipate though, were the amazing friendships and relationships that would grow out of this experience; that grad school has a way of bonding people together as they work through challenges together and lean on each other at times to make it through. What I didn’t anticipate was that my mind would be opened to new ways of being — new “ontologies!” — that would forever alter the way I conceptualize the world.
I no longer identify myself as a park ranger, and that makes me a little sad. I can’t identify as a grad student now either. So once again I’m not quite sure what I am, but I also know this is just the beginning of a new chapter. I now have a much larger wardrobe of clothes (shout out to the local thrift stores around here), as well as more stuff than I could ever fit in those two suitcases I arrived here with, for better or for worse.
There’s so much more to say about my experience in grad school, but I think I will have to end it here lest this post becomes monstrously long. Before I leave you with my thesis project to explore on your own, I would like to add just one last thought: I was the first woman in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree in 2012, and am now the first person — man or woman — in my family to hold a graduate degree. It feels strange to say that, and I certainly don’t mean it in a conceited way, but I keep mulling over it in my head. While I know I am incredibly privileged to have gotten this far in my education, I am also proud of myself for being able to blaze my own trail, fight my own battles, and face head-on the unique challenges that come with being both a first generation graduate student and a woman in my field. And I most certainly could not have done it without the support, encouragement, and love of the people around me.
So without further ado, check out the final project that made it all happen! Two years in the making, thousands of miles of travel, and thousands of hours of research, editing, and writing. I present to you Swimming Upstream: story mapping knowledge, salmon, and climate change in Cordova, Alaska.