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The journey of a lifetime; student teaching in Alaska

The journey of a lifetime; student teaching in Alaska

(l-r) Butler, Neal

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When Allison Butler visited Lycoming College as a high school senior, she saw a display about the College’s Rural Alaska Teaching Program and said to her parents, “Wouldn’t that be cool?” Fast forward four years, and Butler ’24, a native of Pine Grove, Pa., majoring in biology-ecology and working toward a teaching certification for grades 7-12, is currently completing her student teaching requirement on the Alaskan tundra. Madisyn Neal ’24, a biology major from Roaring Branch, Pa., earning a grade 7-12 teaching certification, is also student teaching in Alaska.

"These prestigious scholarships have provided me financial support to pursue this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and given me the chance to create memories that will last forever.”

Lycoming College’s education department truly embraces the tradition of a liberal arts education by offering a wide variety of enriching academic experiences and an opportunity to explore a liberal arts major to augment a teaching certification. Education faculty create intimate and engaging discussion by keeping up-to-date with contemporary teaching trends, and numerous research, scholarship, and study abroad opportunities make Lycoming students competitive in the teaching field and highly regarded in the classroom.

Butler and Neal were drawn to the program to experience something new and to gain insight into different cultures not available to them in Pennsylvania. They traveled by plane to Alaska and then headed to separate neighboring villages: Butler to Nunapitchuk (Nunap for short) with a population of about 500, and Neal to Kwethluk with a slightly higher population of 700-800. Both women are living and teaching in villages inhabited by nearly 100% indigenous Yup’ik people where the primary language is Yugtun.

The program is not for the faint of heart and requires copious preparation. “I spoke with my connections here in Alaska, as well past program participants, to a gain an understanding of what I should do to prepare before traveling to Alaska,” said Neal. Since the students arrived during the rainy season, pricy rain boots, pants, and jackets were a necessity, as was two weeks of supplies, shipped ahead of time.

The whole experience has been full of surprises and culture shocks, but the biggest shock of all occurred upon arrival in neighboring Bethel. “We had this moment of realness, when it all set in. We knew once we got off of the plane in Bethel that there was no turning back,” said Neal.

Butler said that they both looked at each other with feelings of excitement. “It felt like we were teleported into a completely different world,” she said. “The biggest shock has been adjusting to the life here on the tundra. When I arrived, the sun didn’t start to set until midnight, so catching up on sleep was extremely hard! I came in not knowing anyone and feeling for the first time what it’s like to be alone in the world and having to make decisions for myself.”

Butler added, “Another big challenge is that the beginning of our school year was put on remote learning because our school’s infrastructure was deemed unsafe after parts of the school fell in. The first three weeks were spent making packets for students to complete, but since then we have placed partition walls and temporary support to make it safe for all students and staff to return to in-person learning. This made it challenging to start my student teaching in that situation, but it has taught me a great lesson in flexibility!”

For Neal, culture shock set in after realizing the lack of resources in this part of the world. “You really have to work with what you have or be willing to wait 3-4 weeks for a shipment of supplies to come in,” she said, noting that a can of fruit can cost $10-12 dollars in Kwethluk, but the alternative is waiting 2-4 weeks for an Amazon grocery order to arrive. “We live in a society where we have almost immediate access to what we want. The biggest challenge for me has been forming lessons that are appropriate for the skill of the students and culturally relevant. Almost all the students are 2-3 years behind in grade-level.”

Student teaching in the far reaches of such a remote area does not come without financial expense, and Butler and Neal were able to help offset the costs of the experience with merit awards. Both students are recipients of the Wertz Scholarship and the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship.

“I am honored to have received both awards. These prestigious scholarships have provided me financial support to pursue this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and given me the chance to create memories that will last forever,” said Butler. “The experience has challenged me to push beyond my limits and accomplish something that I never thought I could. It has given me skills and life lessons I could not have gotten from anywhere else. I am growing and learning every day as I step into the classroom, and it is shaping me into the educator I strive to be! These awards inspire me every day to work hard toward my dreams, and the Rural Alaska Student Teaching Program was possible because of them.”

“Being a Noyce Scholar and a Wertz Scholar were integral to my decisions to attend Lycoming, and to pursue student teaching in Alaska. The Noyce Scholarship has allowed me to be in classrooms at high-need schools and to experience a community where many families live well below the poverty level. My Wertz Scholarship has been extremely helpful in an area where everyday supplies and foods are expensive and not very accessible. It’s provided me with the funds to make travel and short-term living arrangements possible,” said Neal.

But with these great challenges, come even greater rewards. “The most rewarding part has been the ability to participate in the community. When I go for walks I always run into my students or children in the village who want to talk to me and get to know who I am,” said Neal.

Butler agreed, explaining that “The Yup’ik community has been very kind and welcoming to me, and I have loved every second of being able to experience a glimpse into their lives here. The students are awesome. I have learned so much from them about their culture and their excitement to teach me those things has propelled my excitement in the classroom. I will miss the relationships I made here, and the genuine connections you make in an area like this. I also have experienced some of the most beautiful landscape out here. The things I’ve gotten to do will be some the coolest things I have ever done, like moose camping and salmon fishing, and berry picking on the tundra!”

Eligible students interested in the Wertz Scholars Program must apply and be admitted to Lycoming College by Feb. 1. Upon admission, eligible students will receive an invitation from Lycoming’s President to interview. More information on the Wertz Scholars Program at Lycoming College is available at

The competitive Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship is awarded to high-performing junior and senior students majoring in biology, chemistry, mathematics or physics at Lycoming College, who are simultaneously earning a secondary teacher certification. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Noyce Scholars are eligible to receive a two-year scholarship of up to $20,000 per year, and commit to teaching in a high-need school district, full-time for two years for each year that they receive the scholarship. The Noyce Scholar Program was established in response to the critical need for highly effective K-12 STEM teachers in high-need school districts. More information about the Noyce Scholar Program is available at

More information about Lycoming’s education program is available at

  • Butler


  • Butler


  • Butler


  • Nunapitchuk School

    Nunapitchuk School

  • Neal


  • Kwethluk School

    Kwethluk School