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With Glacier Bay National Park to the west and Tongass National Forest to the east, Kaitlyn Bieber ’23 and Olivia Chandler ’23 found a month-long home amidst the nation’s largest stretch of protected wildlands. Their goal was to learn how the expansive Alaskan wilderness impacts those living around it and how place can be integral to environmental education and advocacy.

Their Levitt Center-sponsored summer research took them to the small town of Gustavus, home to about 600 year-round residents and the Tidelines Institute, an environmental education organization that connects students to the uniquely rural and remote place around it.

Chandler, a government major, engaged in observational research to explore Tidelines’ infrastructure and philosophies. She and Bieber also conducted interviews with Gustavus community members. The pair biked from their rented cabin to residents’ houses, across the flat plain once shaped by glacial meltwater. At each interview, they learned about the residents’ paths in life.

“These were really inspiring conversations,” Chandler says. “There were days where I went down the rabbit hole of ‘oh we’re doomed because of climate change, and there’s no hope.’ But then we had some interviews with people who have dedicated their lives to advocacy and environmental work ... They had spent their lives fighting for the younger generations, and I think there’s so much value in that.”

Chandler and Bieber conducted 10 interviews that helped shape their final projects: Chandler’s academic paper and Bieber’s photo essay. For Bieber, whose photo essay included personal narrative, the experiences she had exploring Gustavus played an important role in her project’s development — especially when considering wilderness as a transformative and regenerative power.

“It’s really looking at how being in these spaces and existing with them can reshape and reframe your perspective on life,” said Bieber, an environmental studies major. “And I think being in Gustavus, I definitely experienced that. When you are in a landscape that is so indifferent to your existence, it forces you to reconsider what actually matters, and it helps put life into perspective.”

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