Tuesday, June 26, 2012

No Love for Sitka??

This month, there was a buzz in my hometown of Sitka over an article in an Australian newspaper over a botched trip to Alaska.  The article, What's the Value of a Wasted Day in Alaska? tells the story of a group of Australian tourists who come to Southeast Alaska on a seven-day cruise, hoping to see the town of Skagway.  Instead, they are stuck in Sitka, on what they call "a wasted day."  After returning to Australia, they sued the travel agency that had stuck them on the cruise (although it was really their own fault for not reading the tour itinerary beforehand).  Each of the six tourists who sued were awarded $250 in damages.

I have quite a few problems with these Aussies and their argument that a day in Sitka, my beloved hometown, was "wasted."  They argued that Skagway was superior.  As the visitor guides tout, "a place where romance and excitement of yesteryear linger around every street corner...the sounds of bar-room pianos and boomtown crowds ring out into the night."  While that may have been true back in Gold Rush days, Skagway is now a town that exists to cater to summer tourists.  During the winter, it's population is miniscule. Most people who work at the saloons, gift shops, and plentiful jewelery and fur stores are from outside of Alaska, or even out of the country.  I'm sure it's a fun place to be; several of my college friends have worked for may summers in Skagway.  Pretty much every cruise ship that visits Southeast stops in Skagway since it has a deepwater port that can accomodate many ships and is the gateway to the mainland and the rest of Alaska (Denali National Park, Fairbanks, Anchorage...)  Sitka is quite different, and in my biased opinion, a better option if one wants the real Alaskan experience.

Sitka was the Capital of Russian America when they occupied Alaska, and was the site of the transfer ceremony when Russia sold Alaska to the US in 1867.  Sitka is like the Granada, Spain of Alaska; a place where different cultures melded and clashed.  While we don't have the Christians, Moors and Jewish history Granada does, historic battles over culture, religion and ownership of the land and resources between the Tlingit Natives and Russians occured throughout the town.  This has left behind a rich history to the area.  We are located on an island on the edge of the Pacific, a wonderful place for both salmon and halibut fishing.  Mt. Edgecumbe volcano looms just miles from town; hiking and kayaking is accesible and breathtaking; Russian and Tlingit dance groups perform daily; and our downtown shops are less focused on selling furs and jewelry to tourists than they are on supporting local families.  Sitka is the most pictureque town in Alaska, and there are abundant outdoor recreation opportunities.  Okay, okay, perhaps these disgruntled Australian tourists visited Sitka on a rainy day.  Yes, the weather here is not for the faint of heart or the easily depressed.  We get more rain than sun (around 90 inches and 232 precipitation days annually) and this can make the town dreary and sleepy.  I'll give those Australians the benefit of the doubt and muse that it must have been raining, since any person in their right mind who saw Sitka on a sunny day would definitely not be dissapointed.

I'll let some photos of Sitka speak for themselves. 

And now, here is a photo of Skagway.  Think any more cruise ships could fit in there??

I'll just let the photos speak for themselves.  I'm sure Skagway has its charms, but I would bet that you'd be more likely to have an authentic Alaskan experience in Sitka.  Australian tourists, feel free to come visit again.  I'll personally show you a great time in Sitka!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Graduate School and Debt - The Big Decision

I've been back in the United States for a year now. Wow!  The familiar weight of my iPhone is a constant presence in my hand or pocket, and my fingers can type a text message without my eyes' help anymore.  I've become accustomed to drinking tap water and not getting sick, I can sleep through the night without worrying about my house getting broken into, hot showers no longer feel like a luxury, and I'm beginning to lose my taste for beans.  My Spanish doesn't come as easily as it did, but I cultivate it through monthly calls with Nicaraguan friends on Skype.  I'm officially converting back into an American again... We all knew this day was coming.

When I first arrived home, it was initially hard to find a job.  For the summer, I worked as a sales associate at an outerwear store.  I was grateful to have something, but I was starting to freak out about my future.  Then an opportunity came up to work at an Alaskan foundation that grants millions to nonprofit organizations in our state every year.  I worked there as a temporary employee for four months, getting my feet back on the "professional ground" as it were, and remembering what it was like to be in an office and work at a computer every day.  After that, I moved to Alaska's capital city, Juneau to work as a Legislative Aide for the Alaska State Senate, a position I currently hold. 

Working for the Legislature has been a whirlwind experience.  This is my first experience with state government and policy making and I felt like I was trying to drink from a fire hose.  Every day brought new challenges and the short 90 day legislative session put everything in a time crunch.  Working late and on the weekends was normal for our office, so the fact that Alaska received record snowfall this winter didn't phase me much; I was inside for most of it. 

Despite these great jobs, my long-held goal of earning my Master's degree persists, and I applied to several schools to study international relations.  I have accepted admission at Georgetown University and will begin graduate studies in the Master of Science in Foreign Service program this fall.  While I'm excited to begin school and live in Washington DC, I waffled over the decision as I thought about the repercussions of taking out large student loans.

I applied to schools without thinking about the cost of attendance; I just wanted to see where I could get in.  Now that the decision is finally upon me, I'm realizing that taking out around $80K in loans is no joke.  I have no loans from undergraduate study, and I appreciate and enjoy the freedom this gives me in my life.  Having my Master's will undoubtedly open professional doors that would have been inaccessible otherwise, and allow me to earn more over my lifetime, but it also means that I will have to be working from the moment of graduation until they are paid off (possible 10+ years). 

As I contemplated this decision, I looked to many friends and family for advice.  Everyone told me something different.  "Debt is just part of life," some would tell me.  "Don't take out more loans than you can expect to make in your first year after graduation," was another piece of advice I often heard.  "Follow your heart!" my friends would say.  "Move to California with me!" one friend countered (I do have to say this was the most tempting option...) 

I stumbled across a great blog by a Harvard University Master's of Business Administration (MBA) graduate: www.nomoreharvarddebt.com  He chronicles his journey into over $100K of debt, and how even after making 21 payments of over $1000, he still owes over $90K due to accumulating interest.  He sees his life being eclipsed by a downward spiral of debt, but is smart enough to take drastic measures (selling off cars, motorcycles, getting roommates, living more frugally...) and pays off all his loans within seven months.  Of course, a lot of this is a no-brainer.  If paying off the debt is really a priority for someone, they can make it happen (of course, it helps to have a Harvard MBA and a well-paying job like the blogger does, too)  As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I already know how to live frugally, but this is harder to do in the US vs. a developing country.  I'm not a great budgeter, but I think that's because I've never really had to do so before.  I've always had "enough" money to get by and with merit scholarships paying for virtually all of my undergraduate education, I've been able to spend my summer earnings how I pleased.  I know I could work another year or two in the job I have now to save money for graduate school (it's a great job, really), but I'm ready to leave Alaska and advance my education, despite the inherent loans.

I ultimately decided that graduate school at Georgetown University is the best path for me right now.  I've visited the campus a few times, met and spoken with several professors and students, and am familiar with the DC area after living there for an internship in 2008.  I've decided to go for the debt, and I'm at peace with the decision.  Let's just hope all goes as planned (I remember when I joined Peace Corps in January 2009, I thought the recession would be long gone by the time I returned in 2011.  Not so...)

I'm excited to begin this new chapter in my life, although starting school again is intimidating.  I'm going to try and update my blog more often now that I'll be leaving Alaska and my life will probably (*hopefully*) get a little more interesting.  Who knows, maybe I'll start blogging about my own student loan debt, too... But for now, I'm just savoring the sweet feeling of having made my decision, and looking forward to an upcoming winter spent outside of Alaska.

Summer Jobs for Teens - A Thing of the Past?

Today, I read an article about how the typical "summer job" for teens is fading away.  With a U.S. economy that is trickling along, more young adults are taking entry-level positions and seasonal jobs that teens would normally fill. 

The article states that fewer than 3 in 10 Americans teenagers hold seasonal jobs.  This is really hard for me to believe.  Perhaps that is because I've spent most of my summers in Alaska, which despite the economic downturn, has summer economy that provides as many jobs as a kid can take on, and still has to bring in folks from out of state to fill positions. 

I started working at the age of 16 at a local museum and gift shop.  My summers were filled with selling Alaska trinkets and souvenirs, and giving detailed historical tours about my community of Sitka.  This job undoubtedly increased my public speaking abilities, self-confidence, and not to mention gave me some cash to do my own back to school shopping in August.  We all know the benefits of having a job for a young person: increased problem-solving skills and ability to work in a group, learning the value of money, respect for others, time management... After my job at the museum, I went on to work at several other summer jobs up until I was 23: Naturalist/tour guide on a glass-bottom boat, server at a fishing lodge, housekeeper at another fishing lodge, ATV tour shore representative, and sales associate at an outerwear store/gift shop.  The money I earned during these summer jobs allowed me to have more freedom to open up a debit card account, buy the CDs I wanted, go to the movies, and later on, help pay college tuition.

As a teen, I recall hearing of cousins around my age who lived in other states and had trouble finding summer jobs.  Also, European friends my age said it was virtually impossible to find summer employment growing up.  My Alaskan friends and I balked at this.  What the heck did one do in the summer if you didn't work??  An economist for the Federal Reserve point out that jobless teens are not utilizing their time to go to summer school or do other college-preparatory work.  His analysis of government data found that jobless teens across all income groups were often spending the extra time watching TV, playing video games and sleeping rather than on educational activities.  I would recommend that teens who are unable to find work to seek volunteer opportunities and community involvement to have something on their resumes to highlight when they apply for college.  While jobs may be hard to get in this economy for the young and under-skilled, I know that employers and institutions of higher education look highly upon self-motivation and commitment to service in a young person.

Read more here: http://www.adn.com/2012/06/13/2502888/economy-cultural-changes-mean.html#storylink=cpy

I'm glad I was able to grow up in a place where summer employment was the norm, and even an expected part of one's yearly routine.  I think that living in Southeast Alaska also fosters entrepreneurship in its residents, urging people to tak advantage of the tourism and natural resources potential around them. 

I'm sad to see the decline of the "summer job," and I urge any young person in the "lower 48" states to come on up to Alaska if they're wondering what hard seasonal work is like.  I can guarantee you can find at least three jobs to suit you, although the price of a gallon of milk, or a week's worth of rent in this state may be the harder part to swallow...