Zeke Blackwell ’13 couldn’t talk on Friday, nor over the rest of the weekend. He had a Pink Floyd concert, a cabaret for Planned Parenthood, a rehearsal for the upcoming musical “9 to 5” and a run-through for the circus performance of “Tides.” Based on his social calendar, one might expect to find Blackwell amid the glitz and glamour of Chicago, San Francisco or New York. But all this took place over a single weekend in Sitka, Alaska, a seaside town of 9,000 situated on Baranof Island on the outer coast of Alaska’s Inside Passage.
As declared on the visitor’s website, Sitka is a place where “wilderness and culture collide.” The town sits in the shadow of the snow-covered peaks of the Three Sisters, a trio of mountains stretching up from the green bed of spruce below. The main street looks like an old mining town with flat-faced buildings of painted wood. At the center roundabout, the streets converge around St. Michael’s Cathedral, the familiar green spire rising above the roofs like the needle of a compass. By the water, fishing boats fill the marina, lined up like toys below the backdrop of Mount Edgecumbe. There are two traffic lights, two bars and 14 miles of paved road from one end of the island to the other. The only way in is by air or sea. The wild beauty and close community has turned the town into a top destination for hikers, climbers, hunters, fishermen and somehow, defying all expectations, Yalies.
The Yale-Sitka pipeline brought students from across the country, placing them in local government jobs, teaching, community building, arts education and conservation. Most came for a summer or a post-graduate year, seeking an alternative to the typical “Wall Street” internships and the rat race of New York. Once, they arrived, though, it became hard to leave.
“It’s easy to fall in love with the place,” said Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. “It has some of the best access to wilderness you can find anywhere in the world, it is sublimely beautiful and it has a wonderful sense of community. People feel at home here.”
“Bulldogs on Baranof”
Kreiss-Tomkins was born and raised in Sitka. He spent his childhood exploring the woods of his backyard on the border of the Tongass National Forest. An avid debater and political organizer, he eventually found his way to New Haven. At Yale, he was involved in Yale Outdoors, the Yale Symphony Orchestra and a late-night running club he started called “Harriers of the Night.” Still, despite immersing himself in campus life, he “always had one foot firmly planted back home.”
Kreiss-Tomkins returned to Alaska every summer. In high school, he had worked frequently with nonprofits in the community, including the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, which was searching for more summer employees. Thinking his friends at Yale might enjoy spending a summer in Sitka, he passed on the information, introducing them to different organizations in town.
“There were all these great opportunities back home, and there are all these great people, and I wanted to connect the two,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “I passed on the idea, and they were intrigued, partly because I’d been talking nonstop about Alaska.”
When Kreiss-Tomkins returned home in May 2010, he brought a cohort of Yalies with him. That summer, a group of friends worked at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp as faculty members and counselors, another did field work for a glaciology project and a budding Yale author became the resident writer at the Island Institute.
The summer was a success, and with other students interested, Kreiss-Tomkins decided to formalize his bare-bones operation and recruit Yalies from beyond his circle of friends. He put up fliers around campus, contacted potential host organizations, developed an independent website and baptized his program, “Bulldogs on Baranof,” in honor of his island home. Word traveled faster than rain in Southeast Alaska, and by the following summer, another dozen had arrived in town.
Then, in 2012, Kreiss-Tomkins left campus for good, a credit shy of graduation. He walked out of his final exams, boarded a plane home and hit the ground running with a grassroots campaign for state legislature. He won, surprisingly, squeaking out a victory over eight-year incumbent Republican Bill Thomas. At age 23, he was the youngest member of the legislature, but within a few years, the name JKT (Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins) became as ubiquitous in Alaskan politics as the “Notorious RBG.”
Despite his absence from campus, Kreiss-Tomkins was committed to keeping the Yale-Sitka pipeline running and passed the job of recruitment off to Jeanine Dames — director of Undergraduate Career Services, now known as the Office of Career Strategy. With Dames’ support, the program was officially endorsed by Yale with internships listed on the OCS website under “Bulldogs on Baranof.”
The program exploded with 15–20 students flooding Sitka’s tiny airport every May. In 2015, the Office of Career Strategy identified Sitka as the top destination for Yale students seeking summer employment, surpassing OCS internships in the metro hubs of London and San Francisco.
“It was a big deal. I don’t even know if we get 20 students in Austin or Pittsburgh,” said Dames. “The opportunities in Sitka were just really good. The employers were invested in the students and their experience in the community. Most were small nonprofits and small government positions, so college students were working side-by-side with founders, owners and senior employees.”
Soon other schools began hearing about Sitka. A few students from other campuses joined the program in 2012, and as word spread, their friends wanted in. The following year, the program formally opened to all universities, including Stanford University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Bowdoin College, Bates College and Whitman College.
To accommodate the growing demand, Kreiss-Tomkins created the Sitka Winter Fellows in 2014, offering nine-month post-graduate fellowships in the Sitka community. Fellows received a monthly living stipend, provided by the host organization, and a travel budget and housing, paid for by the program.
The program is now in its sixth year with sister locations in Anchorage and Juneau, established in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Since 2018, the program no longer goes by “Bulldogs on Baranof” nor “Sitka Winter Fellows” but the “Alaska Fellows Program.”
“We threw together this program and had to adapt because each time it wasn’t big enough to include everyone,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “In the beginning it was all volunteer, and now we finally have our first executive director.”
To help run the program, Kreiss-Tomkins has recruited two former Sitka Winter Fellows, Meredith Redick ’14, who serves as the first executive director, and Ira Slomski-Pritz ’14, the Anchorage-based co-coordinator. But Slomski-Pritz and Redick are not the only Yalies to return. In fact, Sitka is full of them.
Settled in Sitka
Redick arrived in Sitka in September 2016. She had flown from Chicago, where she had spent the last two years teaching first grade at a bilingual school with Teach for America. She had heard about Sitka, but never visited, until she took a leap of faith and, with the 14 other Winter Fellows, committed to nine months of living there.
That first week, Redick and the other fellows were welcomed in true Sitka style — with a community potluck. Neighbors and residents crowded into the fellows’ communal house with venison stew, homemade sourdough bread, huckleberry jam and smoked salmon. As Redick remembers, one community member donated an entire 70 pounds of salmon to the fellows’ freezer.
To introduce them to the area, Kreiss-Tomkins had organized a retreat at the Samsing Cove Cabin, 45 minutes from Sitka in the heart of the Tongass National Forest. Once the sun finally set, at around 8 p.m., Redick and the other fellows went down to the water. Someone suggested swimming, and a group summoned the courage to wade into the cold shallows. As soon as they began moving, the water lit up with bioluminescent plankton, glowing beneath the surface. Jellyfish, their tentacles like Christmas lights, trailed through the water. Overhead, green swaths of light moved across the sky — the northern lights, a rare treat for summer in Alaska.
“I wasn’t sure where to look — up or down,” Redick said. “It was the greatest introduction to a place.”
When Slomski-Pritz recalls his time in Sitka, what he remembers most is the “perpetual feeling of awe.” The current coordinator of the Anchorage program, Slomski-Pritz first found his way to Sitka in the summer of 2012, working with other Yalies to renovate the historic Sheldon Jackson Campus, home to the Sitka Fine Arts Camp.
Upon graduation, he returned again as a Sitka Winter Fellow, helping with the Hames Center on the Sheldon Jackson Campus where he organized community activities and afterschool programs. During his lunch breaks, he would grab a sea kayak and paddle out into the Sound to watch a pod of humpbacks feeding.
“It was those moments, maybe every day, maybe not, [that] I’d just look up around me and think to myself, ‘I can’t believe this where I live,’” Slomski-Pritz said.
Shannon Flores ’18, a current fellow based in Sitka, never dreamed of ending up in Alaska. Her plan was to spend the summer after graduation studying for the Graduate Record Examinations and apply to master’s programs in education that fall. But, after four years at Yale, she was burned out. Then, in her senior year, she saw a flyer in the Branford dining hall for summer experiences in Sitka. After searching the Alaska Fellows page and browsing Google images of the town, she decided to apply. She knew she wanted a summer or post-graduate experience in the outdoors, but it wasn’t until she found Alaska Fellows that it felt like the right fit.
“[Alaska Fellows] combined education and being in a really beautiful place where the culture and environment is so different from Yale,” Flores said. “It’s not about the constant busyness and stress. Here, it’s so laid-back.”
As a fellow, Flores works as a college and career counselor for the Mount Edgecumbe High School, a state-run boarding school that primarily serves Alaska Natives, many of whom are the first in their families to apply to college. Flores loves her job, but she is also glad her work doesn’t consume her life. At the end of the day, she can go home, shut down her computer, put away her phone and spend hours playing board games with the other fellows. Her guilty pleasures: Settlers of Catan, Cambio and Dutch Blitz.
Blackwell tried New York before finding Sitka. An accomplished director, actor and writer, he immersed himself in the theater scene, working as a stagehand while producing his original play “Still Life” for the New York International Fringe Festival. As much as he loved theater, Blackwell struggled to find professional opportunities in New York, and with a high cost of living, just making rent was often a challenge.
In the fall of 2013, after his play’s premier, he left New York to work on a farm in Massachusetts. He returned to the city, but by then, he’d had enough of New York. In September of 2014, he left for good, joining the Sitka Fellows Program as the first community theater director. For Blackwell, the places he loved most were those that gave him a sense of community, a feeling he had lost since leaving Yale. In the small town of Sitka, Alaska he found it again.
Only one of the local schools in Sitka had a theater department, but it was only offered to high school students. Blackwell built the youth theater program from the ground up, operating out of the Sheldon Jackson Campus, the historic center of town. In his nine months as a fellow, he recruited over a hundred students and put on three performances. In the spring of 2015, he was asked to continue full-time.
“In Alaska, it is possible to have a great impact,” Blackwell said. “At 23, I was given the opportunity to build and run a children’s theater without a master’s degree or the equivalent in professional experience. It was far above what I would be able to find in another place, and I enjoyed where I was living. …The people here actually want to know you for who you are instead of what you do.”
Blackwell has since made a name for himself in Sitka. He has stayed in Sitka as the Youth Theater director of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, which receives over 1,000 students every summer. He’s settled down in town or, to be more precise, in the surrounding waters. He lives on a boat in the harbor. Without a doubt, he has the best view in town, waking up in the morning to the sun rising over the Sound.
As much as people love Sitka, most eventually move on. A common question of newcomers around town is “How long are you here for?”
When Will Kronick ’14 arrived in Sitka in 2014, he thought he would be there for no more than a year. He had never been West of the Mississippi, let alone Alaska. He had applied to work with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska as the Sheet’ka Kwaan fellow, serving as the family engagement manager. As part of his job, he ran the evening and weekend program for families, working with preschoolers and kids from the native community. During his time in the village, Kronick witnessed a different side of Sitka, one that is often hidden from tourists and even other fellows in town.
According to Kronick, in the native community there is a distrust of outsiders, and in light of Alaska’s history of colonization, exploitation and racial injustice, such suspicion is warranted. Despite good intentions, volunteers often lack the background knowledge and professional experience to address issues within the native communities, sometimes leading to further friction.
Rather than preach, Kronick learned to approach his position with “humility and humor.” He worked to integrate cultural activities into the program, such as beading, carving bracelets and necklaces, storytelling and traditional harvesting of fish and berries. He loved working with the kids, but he also quickly realized that his presence was not going to change much in nine months.
“I think with all these programs, whether it’s the Peace Corps, AmeriCorp or whatever, I think it’s a fiction that the community benefits from it,” he said. “We’re young people who don’t know much. It’s important to go in with that humility. ‘I’m here to help people’ is very patronizing.”
Part of the problem in Sitka, Kronick sees, is the lack of social mobility for residents outside the predominantly white arts community. Although well intentioned, fellows can take opportunities away from locals, many of who grew up in the community. For Kronick, it’s part of a larger phenomenon of Alaska’s history.
“People come here to extract things, whether that’s coal, gold or oil, ” he said. “I think people sometimes look at the Fellows program or other volunteer things as that, too. You are coming here to extract experience, and then they leave.”
The population of Sitka has always been somewhat transient with seasonal workers flying in for the summer, working as fishermen, loggers or construction workers. Beside the Fellows program, there are two other volunteer organizations in town: AmeriCorps and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Like the fellows, most of the volunteers are outsiders, and although some settle in Sitka, most come for the year and then head back home.
Kreiss-Tomkins and Redick are well aware of this problem. Recently, they have worked to recruit more Alaskans to the program in the hopes that they will put down roots. They have also sought out post-graduate students interested in investing in the community, who can envision themselves staying for the long-term.
For his part, Kronick has remained in Alaska. He left Sitka in 2016 to work in Juneau for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska where he coordinates the Suicide Prevention program. Despite his ambivalence about volunteer programs, Kronick still believes Sitka Winter Fellows was one of the best decisions he’s made.
“It thoroughly changed my life,” he said. “[Leaving Sitka] was harder than leaving home for college.”
The Big Picture
Kreiss-Tomkins acknowledges that while fellows sometimes gain more than locals do, the host organizations genuinely value the fellows’ presence.
“Both sides seem to have found benefit in enough situations that the programs continue to work,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
One of these host organizations is the Alaska Humanities Forum, a nonprofit organization based in Anchorage, dedicated to connecting Alaskans through leadership development, grant-making, cross-cultural immersions and conversational programming. The Forum hosted its first fellow this year, who works with the Forum’s Public Programming Manager Grace Harrington.
“I honestly don’t know another vehicle that rivals [the Fellows program],” said Harrington. “It’s this matchmaking where these bright, emerging leaders with so many opportunities are deciding to come to Alaska. It’s a reciprocal relationship where the state gives opportunities not found elsewhere, and the fellows infuse the state with their energy.”
By attracting students, Kreiss-Tomkins argues, that Alaska Fellows has put Sitka, and Alaska with it, on the map for professional and post-graduate opportunities.
Upon graduation, more than 70 percent of Yalies migrate to one of five regions: Massachusetts, California, New York, Connecticut and Washington D.C. It’s a statistic that troubles Kreiss-Tomkins. According to him, not only is the trend unsustainable, but it’s also inequitable.
“Not only are enormous resources poured into Yale students, but they represent part of the intellectual future of the country, and then they go to the cities,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “You have the supersaturation of financial capital, intellectual capital, political capital and cultural capital in half a dozen supercities.”
Kreiss-Tomkins sees the Alaska Fellows Program, and other programs like it, as the way to disrupt the monopoly. For many, the pipeline to New York is simply the path of least resistance, but through the Fellows program, Kreiss-Tomkins hopes to give students a similar professional network in Alaska.
“If we can have success in Alaska, we can have success in Wisconsin and Idaho,” he said. “There is something bigger than Alaska about all of this.”