Adjusting to College in the Lower 48

Alaskans at Harvard

John Pananen '89-'90 couldn't stand it anymore.

Too many people. Too much noise. And much, much, too much studying.

So he left. He left Harvard after the spring of 1986 because freshman year was more than he had bargained for, and school was too far away from his home in Salcha, Alaska.

As the rest of his class returned to Cambridge that fall, John set himself up in a cabin 50 miles east of Fairbanks, Alaska, and began life alone as a trapper, using the skills his father had taught him as a child. Every day he would rise, strap on his pack and set out to check his traps for whatever they might yield--martens, wolverines, lynx and the like. Subsisting primarily on flour pancakes and the occasional moose or caribou steak, he was prepared to trap through the end of the trapping season in February.

"I hated freshman year," Pananen explains. "I had no intention of coming back to Harvard--ever."


When Pananen came out of the wilderness after four months, he went looking for work in Fairbanks. He had gathered only 12 animal pelts--a low total for the time he'd spent trapping; he had several frostbitten toes; and on one occasion, he had fallen through the ice on a river that flowed by his trapline. He was ready for a new job.

In Fairbanks, Pananen worked for a short time as a plumber and then behind the counter at the local MacDonalds. Unhappy with both jobs, he reconsidered his decision to leave Harvard.

"I recognized the necessity of getting a real job," he laughs. "I thought maybe I should come back and stick it out."

Pananen is now back in Cambridge, finishing his sophomore year. But when the biology concentrator looks back to the hardest moments of the last several years, he doesn't only talk about falling into freezing rivers or living alone in sub-zero temperatures. He'll just as soon mention taking Chemistry 10 as a freshman.

"That was a nightmare," he says. "I had no clue how to study. I just hated it."

Tok Thompson '88 tells a similar story. Thompson came to Harvard from Kenai, Alaska, where his nearest neighbor was more than two miles away. After a "horrible" freshman year, he transferred to the University of California at Santa Barbara. But, like Pananen, Thompson reconsidered his original decision to leave Cambridge. The anthropology major will graduate in June, having written his thesis on a small group of commercial fishermen in southwestern Alaska.

Pananen and Thompson both hail from America's largest and least settled state--Alaska--where it is dark for as many as 20 hours a day in the winter and where temperatures drop as low as 60 degrees below zero. Pananen and Thompson are not alone at Harvard. They are two of the 13 Alaskans currently enrolled at the College. Migrating from towns such as North Pole and Copper Center, these students travel nearly 4000 miles to come to school. None of the 13 agrees exactly what it means to be an Alaskan at Harvard, but most are in accord about one thing--it's a big adjustment to make.

"I was so used to having the mountains around," says Scott Merriner '90, of Dillingham, Alaska. "Here you can't even see the stars."

But not all residents of the state known as "the last frontier" have trouble with the transition. While Mia Costello '90 acknowledges that coming to Cambridge from Anchorage required some adjustment, she downplays the difficulty. Costello found a niche on the Harvard swim team soon after her arrival. This February she led the women's swim team to its first-ever title in the Eastern Intercollegiate Women's Swimming League championships. Finishing first in both the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke events, the sophomore also swam the breaststroke leg for Harvard's winning 200- and 400-yard medley relay teams. Her season's efforts earned Costello a spot on this year's All-America women's swim team.

"The swimming helped me adjust," Costello says. "With the team, suddenly I had lots of friends."