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Kaitlyn Bieber '23 and Olivia Chandler '23 in Alaska
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 wilderness. But more importantly, the pair found answers for their two distinct Levitt Center research projects. 

These projects had brought them to the small town of Gustavus, Alaska, home to roughly 600 year-round residents. Bieber, an environmental studies major, was drawn by its expansive wilderness and a desire to discover how wilderness impacts the people around it. Chandler, a government major, had long been interested in the creation of alternative structures as a way to challenge societal issues. When Chandler heard about the new Tidelines Institute from Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Aaron Strong, she knew she had to learn more.

Tidelines Institute is an alternative environmental education institution with a main campus based in Gustavus. At the core of Tidelines’ mission is a commitment to connect its students to the uniquely rural and remote place around it. That commitment inspired Chandler’s research project, as she asked two questions: How can place be integral to environmental education and advocacy, and what can we learn from Tidelines Institute? 

Strong, who co-advised both students’ projects, connected them to Tidelines Institute. Chandler worked closely with Tidelines, engaging in observational research to explore their infrastructure and philosophies. She and Bieber also conducted interviews with Gustavus community members. The pair biked from their rented cabin to the 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 said. “There are days where I go 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. Even if they didn’t have much hope either, they had spent their lives fighting for the younger generations, and I think there’s so much value in that.”

The pair completed 10 interviews, which 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,” Bieber said. “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.”

As Bieber and Chandler reflect on their month in Alaska, they are hopeful that their research can have broader geographical impacts. With the importance of place at each project’s center, the results of this research are not confined to Gustavus. Instead, the lessons learned can be applied to any community that wants to discover how their physical place can impact and inspire their people.

Kaitlyn Bieber ’23

Major: Environmental Studies
Hometown: Katonah, N.Y.
High School: John Jay High School

Olivia Chandler ’23

Major: Government
ometown: Valatie, N.Y.
High School: Ichabod Crane High School

 

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