HAYS, KS -- As the only university in western Kansas, Fort Hays State University sometimes feels a bit remote to students, particularly those from the more populated half of the state.
But Ottawa native Elizabeth "Liz" Hornbuckle discovered the true meaning of "remote" after graduation when she accepted a teaching job in the Alaskan village of Brevig Mission, just south of the Arctic Circle.
Hornbuckle, now in her second year at Brevig Mission, graduated from FHSU in May 2000 with a B.A. in mathematics education. She became interested in teaching in Alaska after seeing a Web site made by elementary students about their school.
"I was totally amazed at the amount of technology available to the students here," Hornbuckle said. She visited Fairbanks, AK, in the summer of 1999 to take some certification classes and make sure she really wanted to teach there. While there, she met another teacher in the Bering Strait School District who recommended Brevig Mission as a good place to start out.
Brevig Mission is a community of approximately 276 people located along the Bering Strait, 65 miles northwest of Nome. The village is accessible only by air or sea in the summer; in the winter, it can be accessed by land or ice.
"I decided to take the job up here for the adventure in it -- and they had running water and flush toilets," Hornbuckle said. "That is the only question I remember asking during the phone interview and really wanting to know the answer!
"I think my friends thought I was crazy at first, but they knew that I wanted to do this and that it was important, so they really supported me."
The Brevig Mission school comprises preschool through grade 12; it has 100 students and eight certified teachers. Hornbuckle teaches fifth- and seventh-grade math classes as well as fifth-grade reading, high school Spanish and algebra, and "Home Based Industries," a vocational education course. In addition, she serves as the technology liaison and academic decathlon and cheerleading sponsor, and she participates in two grant programs.
"This teaching job is difficult, but I wouldn't trade it," Hornbuckle said. "I love the students and the community. My first year I had a tough time since these kids see teachers come and go; you have to convince them that you really do care and that you are here to stay." She said her biggest frustration as a teacher is dealing with apathetic students. "Many of the kids can't see past high school and think that school is not important. I tried to save the world when I first came up here, but now I have scaled back and am trying one student at a time."
Hornbuckle considers her education at FHSU integral to her success teaching in Alaska. She said working as a resident adviser and resident manager in the residence halls gave her a huge boost in dealing with the everyday problems that occur. Also, she said she frequently implements resources from her cousework at FHSU.
"All of my classes, even the gen-ed ones I thought I would never use" -- with emphasis on the "never" -- "are coming in handy now," she said. "I honestly think that the work ethic that my classes instilled in me is what keeps me going up here some days."
Hornbuckle said life in Alaska differs significantly from life in Hays. "The hardest thing for me to deal with was the isolation," she said. "You couldn't imagine the number of times I missed those late-night Wal-Mart runs in Hays with my friends."
Keeping with true FHSU spirit, she takes advantage of technology to remain in touch with the outside world. "This year we went about three weeks without Internet access and I truly felt lost," she said. "This is my main means of communication."
Ninety-six percent of the population of Brevig Mission is Eskimo or Native Alaskan. "There are no non-natives here except for the teachers, the preacher and their kids," Hornbuckle said. However, she said she hasn't faced many challenges from being a minority.
"I made a point of getting out and getting to know people in the community," she said. "I actually feel funny when I go out of the village and catch myself thinking, 'Wow -- there sure are a lot of white people here!' "
Although she's immersed herself in the native culture, Hornbuckle said some habits die hard, necessitating a few concessions to her old way of life. While the Eskimo population hauls water from a community washeteria to individual homes, all teacher housing has running water and electricity. She also does her food shopping in Anchorage each year before the school year begins, stocking up on dried, canned and frozen foods. She supplements those with foods purchased at the local store.
"I have gotten to try native foods," she said. "Muktuk (whale blubber) is not something that I would ever eat again. Eskimo ice cream is OK, but the seal oil is a bit strong in some." She likes moose and caribou, but isn't a big fan of frozen raw fish or greens dipped in seal oil. While fruit is a specialty, she enjoys a variety of native berries, including salmonberries, blueberries and blackberries.
The other significant difference is light -- or the lack thereof. Brevig Mission isn't far enough north to be in 24-hour darkness, but Hornbuckle said there are only three to five hours of daylight through the winter months. "The darkness didn't affect me at all … I spend so much time at school it doesn't matter," she said. "But I definitely do notice when it starts to lighten up, because I just feel eager to get out and snowmachine or ski."
Hornbuckle has definitely gotten the adventure she bargained for when she took this teaching job. She said she has "tons of stories of sledding down mountains, crows eating my frozen chicken at the airport, landing sideways on airstrips, blizzards so bad I couldn't see my hand in front of my face, drifts so high you have to duck under the powerlines, carving steps out of snow to get down into my house, the heat and power going out when it is minus-20 degrees outside, and others along that line."
Despite the challenges -- or maybe because of them -- Hornbuckle said she's happy where she is. When she left Kansas, she made a three-year commitment to teaching in Brevig Mission; that term expires next year.
"I can't tell you how long I will stay in this village, but I will be back this upcoming year," she said. "I definitely do plan on staying in Alaska for a long time."