Outer Coast students learn through individualized education and experiences. (Photo provided by Bryden Sweeney-Taylor)

Outer Coast students learn through individualized education and experiences. (Photo provided by Bryden Sweeney-Taylor)

Opinion: Seeking a new model of higher education, Sitka school draws from Alaska and national inspirations

In 1986, two linguists, Ron and Suzie Scollon, drafted a proposal for the Sealaska Heritage Foundation to inaugurate a new kind of education, which they had developed with help from Tlingit scholars Nora and Richard Dauenhauer. It was an education that would prioritize building knowledge about the place you live in, the cultures you interact with, and the communication skills you need to flourish in an interconnected, media-saturated world. The Axe Handle Academy, as it was called, never became a physical school, but its curriculum and values have continued to live in the minds of educators as a vision for place-based education that relates directly to the lives that we lead.

About 70 years earlier, an entrepreneur by the name of L.L. Nunn decided to open a small, unorthodox two-year college on a cattle ranch in eastern California that would give students a liberal arts education while building the tools of self-sufficiency and “service to humanity.” That college, Deep Springs, remains in existence, and its three-pillar model of academics, labor and self-governance has taken root in other institutions around the country.

I am the executive director at Outer Coast, a new, small liberal arts institution of higher education located on the Sitka Fine Arts Camp/historic Sheldon Jackson campus in Sitka. Inspired in part by the Axe Handle Academy, in part by Deep Springs, and most of all by the places, languages and cultures of Sitka and Southeast, Outer Coast was founded to reconceive what higher education in Alaska can look like and whom it can serve.

Over the past several years, our team has run college-credit-granting Summer Seminars as well as a postsecondary academic-year program for both Alaskan and non-Alaskan students while moving steadily toward our longstanding goal of opening a new college in Alaska. Now, we are at a critical turning point: our inaugural class of undergraduates will matriculate at Outer Coast in the fall of 2024. (We are still accepting applications for the 20 students who will make up our founding class, hailing from communities across Alaska and around the world.)

Alaska has the lowest four-year college graduation rate in the country, and its college attainment numbers are dismal compared to other states — all the more so for low-income students, rural students and Alaska Natives. At the same time, higher education across the country is in a state of seemingly endless crisis: tuition costs are skyrocketing, universities are run like corporations (often at the expense of the communities in which they are located), the academic job market is increasingly precarious, and significant numbers of the country’s most high-achieving students leave college for lucrative positions in finance, management consulting, or big tech, with the sense that they have neither the obligation nor the ability to effect meaningful change in the world.

At Outer Coast, we seek to challenge these prevailing norms. We are building an institution that gives curious young people the opportunity to simultaneously invest in their own growth and that of the communities around them. By prioritizing financial affordability, we hope to reach students who are underserved by higher education, especially Alaskans. And unlike colleges where each student is one among hundreds in a lecture hall, or a small square on a screen, life at Outer Coast is intimate and deeply communal.

Our curriculum features a range of interdisciplinary seminars that are informed by the study and practice of Indigenous traditions in Sitka and Southeast Alaska. Students are responsible for undertaking independent service work and admitting future students, hiring faculty, and making other critical decisions for the institution through collective governance.

On a given Thursday, students could be trickling out of a class discussion on intertidal ecology to head into a committee meeting, where they discuss applications from prospective faculty members. In the afternoon, one student may walk down the street to the salmon hatchery at the Sitka Sound Science Center for her volunteer shift, while another commandeers the kitchen to make jars of jam for elders in town. Their dinner conversation is peppered with phrases in the Tlingit language, which they have been practicing in class. One student is zealously recruiting participants for a Dostoevsky reading group; a few others scroll through Raven Radio’s community calendar to plan out their weekend. In the evening, the more intrepid among them venture out to the rocky beach steps away from campus for a cold-water plunge.

Over the course of their two years at Outer Coast, undergraduates will earn college credit; after they graduate, our students will be well-positioned to transfer to a four-year university with junior standing in order to complete their bachelor’s degrees.

“Outer Coast is a place where academics are informed by your personal experiences. What drives you to think about the things you want to think about and solve the problems you want to solve is rooted in your lived experiences and your life decisions,” said Feli, a student who attended the Outer Coast Year program last fall. “Outer Coast has been quite formative in making the connection between what is academic and what is just human.”

All of our work at Outer Coast springs from two convictions. The first is that education should begin in the place where you are: the body you are in, the people you interact with, the ecosystems you inhabit, the histories that surround you. The second is that a true community is one where every individual has a responsibility to everyone else. Every student, no matter who they are, brings essential gifts to their peers, our institution and the community. With these convictions in mind, Outer Coast can be a model of what college can and should look like — one that can be emulated by other schools, in other contexts. At the end of an Outer Coast education, we want students to understand that two of lifeʼs key questions — Where am I in this world? And, what are my responsibilities to this world? — can only be answered together.

• Bryden Sweeney-Taylor is executive director of Outer Coast. He is a graduate of Deep Springs and Harvard College and the co-founder of Matriculate, a college access nonprofit powered by college students. He splits his time between Sitka and Los Angeles. This article originally appeared at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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