Christine Ranney, a fellow section-mate of mine at NYU Law, also spent a good portion of her spring break on a plane. However, rather than taking a single cross-continental flight on a commercial jetliner, she made daily flights on a tiny plane, traveling to villages in Alaska only accessible by plane or boat.
Christine volunteered to spend her spring break providing tax assistance to local low-income Alaskans through Alternative Spring Break. Ten NYU Law students participated in this program, sponsored by Law Students for Human Rights (LSHR), one of the best organized student organizations at NYU Law. LSHR provides annual opportunities for students to participate in week-long internships with a public interest organization while experiencing new cities, working with current legal issues, bonding with other NYU Law students, and networking with alumni.
The application process for the trip was simple yet competitive, as the trip was almost fully funded by NYU and the Alaska Business Development Center. The preparation involved was not as simple, as students had to complete approximately 30 hours of tax training in order to participate in the program.
The 10-person group split into pairs to tackle their assigned areas of the state. Groups went to Western Alaska, the Bering Strait, the North Slope and a variety of other places. Christine and her partner, Liz Jordan, covered Kodiak Island, a large island south of the mainland. The teams set up shop in a school or community building each day to provide tax assistance to grateful local residents, enabling most of them to receive a refund. They slept in sleeping bags in school gyms, libraries, community centers, apartments, or whatever other place they were given to stay by their generous hosts. While their lodgings were not the most glamorous, their daily backdrop scenery consisted of rocky mountains rising out of the sea, beautiful bays and inlets, U-shaped valleys carved out by glaciers, and striking color variations between the coal-black beaches, snow-white mountains, green forests, and azure water.
Christine had opportunities to take boat trips, tour a fish cannery, explore villages, and even learn how to carve an Aleutiq paddle at a special festival in the tiny village of Akhiok. She learned the most on the trip, however, from the people, who were eager to share their culture. In contrast to the fast-paced lifestyles of most New Yorkers, the simple joys of daily life satisfy residents of Alaska. Drop a net during a salmon run, shoot a moose or two, grab some berries, and as an Alaskan, you have enough food for the year. For entertainment on the weekends, hike through beautiful wilderness, hunt, fish and explore beautiful inlets in your boat, or snowboard down untouched mountain powder.
What especially struck Christine was a conversation with Larry, a 19-year-old from Old Harbor, whose taxes she helped file. Larry had visited New York before, and his frame of reference for describing the city was to compare New York’s skyscrapers to the beautiful Alaskan mountains rising behind him. Maybe New Yorkers have more to envy of Alaskans than they of us.
Christine thoroughly enjoyed her experience and fully plans on visiting the Kodiak again in the near future. Consider lacing up your own snow boots and volunteering in Alaska in lieu of outlining/lying on a Caribbean beach next spring break.
*Special thanks to Christine Ranney for sharing her experiences with me and for contributing photos from her trip. Thanks also to Liz Jordan for permission to use her name and photographs of her.
Update: I have been selected for the Alternative Spring Break trip to Alaska for March 2012, so I will be in Christine’s shoes (both literally and figuratively, as she’s been kind enough to offer to let me borrow some of her Alaska-survival apparel) soon!