Iowa winters don't seem too bad after talking with Matt Simons, a 2000 graduate of Buena Vista University.
When Matt walks the two blocks from his home to work, all he has to worry about are the occasional Polar Bears searching for food, wind chills that hit 60 below zero, and errant drivers on snowmobiles and four-wheelers. And during the winter this all takes place under the stars in nearly 24/7 darkness.
Matt is in his second year as a math and chemistry teacher in Point Hope on the North Slope of Alaska, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. He teaches in the K-12 Tikigaq School of the North Borough School District, a district that covers a land mass roughly the size of the state of Minnesota. The school has 270 students and 20 teachers, plus teacher aides and student helpers. The community is on a 6- square-mile peninsula that extends several miles into the Arctic Ocean.
Over 90 percent of the population (around 850 during the spring whaling season) of Point Hope is Alaska Native or part Native. There is a lot of unemployment and people rely heavily on hunting and fishing, including whale hunting, for sustenance.
"The village grows on you. It is a small community that acts like a huge family," notes Matt. "It's a lot like the school where I grew up in Webb, which was small and everyone knew everything about you. Very little is kept secret here for very long."
Getting the respect of the native people is a lot about trust. "Actions mean a lot up here, so the more I volunteer for basketball and volleyball games, dinners and dances, the more people see you out helping their students and others in the community. It makes your job here a lot easier."
High school basketball is the "king of sports" in Alaskan communities, says Matt. "It could be compared to the popularity of football in Texas," says Matt. "Point Hope has had several state and regional championships. Away games are usually tournaments, so they can have multiple games with less travel. Our teams fly to Barrow, Nome, Anchorage and Fairbanks."
What Matt misses most living in Point Hope is the "the ability to go out and have fun whenever you want. There are no movie theatres, fast food restaurants, or clubs. The social life is a bit dry. For entertainment, we have Texas hold'em poker tournaments, mainly with teachers. We often get together at different teachers' houses, and television and movies are also popular. Hunting and fishing are also big when those opportunities occur."
Since there are no highways to Point Hope, primary access is by air. The village has a state-owned paved runway.
When it comes to town gatherings, the school is the center of the community. "It's the only place large enough for everybody to be in one place at the same time. The entire community comes together for Thanksgiving at the school."
Matt first learned about Point Hope in one of his BVU education classes when he read a book that was an adaptation of an Inupiat legend. "It seemed like one of the last places on earth that was untamed and where everyday survival is treacherous, to say the least."
After graduating from BVU, he taught in Iowa for seven years. "I did about a year and a half of research on Alaska and had my teaching license before I applied at Point Hope. Alaska requires teachers to pass both Praxis I and II in their subject area. It was also recommended that you come to Alaska after you have had some teaching experience, but are still healthy enough to live in a place with limited health care immediately available."
What was the main attraction to Alaska? "The adventure, definitely," says Matt. "I've always enjoyed hunting and fishing and the prospects at Point Hope were just too inviting. And the money was also good, about twice what I was earning in Iowa and the housing is provided at cost."
Matt maintains his ties with BVU through Dr. Jon Hutchins, professor of chemistry, who has helped him obtain some of the lab equipment he needs for his chemistry classes. "I contact Jon almost every summer. Up here, chemicals and equipment are hard to come by, so our labs are quite creative and have less standard fare."
* Read more about Point Hope on the school district's web site at www.nsbsd.org/North_Slope_Borough_School....