Friday, October 23, 2009

Alaska is the Last Place on Earth I Wanted to Live

"Alaska is the Last Place on Earth I Wanted to Live."

This is the way I start the story when I tell people how we ended up in Alaska. Since it is a rainy fall day and I feel like telling a story, let me share it with you.

Three years ago at this time I had just finished a grueling 2 months working on my doctorate degree. And I had decided that sitting around researching and spending huge amounts of time on the computer was just not where my priorities lay at that time. We had been ready to hunker down for a few years and enjoy the dream home we'd just bought in Michigan while I worked on my degree: 10 rolling, fenced-in acres with a barn, sheep, chickens, a huge garden, fruit and Christmas trees, awesome views, a fixer-upper we could enjoy making our own. Deciding not to pursue the degree, I had an identity crisis we would laughingly call my mid-life crisis. Meanwhile, Doug had been passed over for promotion after promotion at his school and was working long hours handling the technology for his school for only a teacher's pay. He was stressed and tired of the constant grind with no appreciation for his dedication.

Fifteen years before when we first graduated from college and got married we had considered moving overseas to teach. Now we decided that it was time to pursue that option again. For two months we began an intensive search for places around the globe we would like to work and live and explore. We hooked up with the International School Review that shares information about hundreds of American and foreign schools overseas. We researched countries, cities and schools for their safety, housing, standard of living, pay, perks, liveability, kid-friendliness and more. After an intense 2 months we'd narrowed our search down to 25 schools we would apply at, spanning every major continent. Portfolios were developed, resumes updated, letters of references collected. It was an intense and exciting time as we explored the possibilities and dreamed about the future.

February 2007 was the International Job Fair in DuBuque, Iowa. That was where we hoped to meet with and wow potential employers. It was also where our dreams were dashed. We'd read that it is difficult for couples to get jobs overseas if only one of them is certified. I teach college, but don't have certification. I was willing to teach, but that willingness didn't count for much. To top that off, we had 2 young kids (a boy and girl no less), and with provided housing scarce, schools didn't want to house a family of 4 with only 1 person working. A handful of schools were interested in Doug, especially for his technology skills, but when we told them our situation they were crestfallen; it just wouldn't work. We were sick about it, and Aurora was so sad. She'd been psyched up for the thrill of going overseas. Denver, on the other hand, was relieved; he'd been scared about it.

We had already committed to moving, so Doug shifted gears and began applying for principalships around the United States, from Maine to Oregon (literally!), finally making use of the educational leadership masters degree he'd gotten a few years before. When he began to apply for jobs in Alaska, I thought to myself, "He won't get a job there." It wasn't that he couldn't, it was just that I couldn't imagine living in Alaska. We'd visited my aunt and uncle a few years earlier for a whole month and had loved it, but with the cost of living so prohibitive we didn't think we could enjoy living and adventuring on a teacher's salary (almost the same pay as in Michigan despite substantially higher cost of living). Going as a principal, however, would offer the possibility of a better life than we had in Michigan: more than constantly scrimping and saving to make ends meet. Then there was my biggest yet unspoken concern: the darkness. How would we handle months and months of short days?

We said we would take the first job he was offered and not second guess ourselves and play the game of trying to find something better. In March the Kenai Peninsula School District called Doug up and set up a phone interview for a weekday at 8 p.m. (4 p.m. Alaska time). I bustled the kids off to the bedroom and read to them to keep them quiet while Doug talked with them for an hour. All the teachers in the school (Razdolna), the principal and community members were all present as the superintendent at the time, Donna Peterson, interviewed Doug. A few days later we got a call: they offered Doug a principal-teacher position at Razdolna, a Russian school near Homer, Alaska!

By this time I had gotten used to the idea of not going overseas, though a part of me still ached for the wanting it. I was ready for any adventure, whereever it might lead. Being the people of faith we are, we firmly believed that we were going where we were for a reason and that there was a purpose in our going to Alaska, of all places. The next few weeks confirmed that certainity.

Within a week after Doug had a job we'd found a place to live. My aunt 'happened' to go to a distant friend's son's birthday party, and then went to visit a friend next door after the party. Stephanie just happened to mention they were moving to California for 2 years of missionary training and needed to find a renter for their 3-bedroom house. My aunt said, "My neice's husband just got a job at the Russian school just down the road (we'd called her the day before!) and they are looking for a place to live." She connected us and we worked out the terms of our rental within days.

As soon as I knew where we were going to be living I found the nearest community college and contacted the college director about a teaching position. Within a week or two I was offered a class to teach for the fall semester. I had a job doing what I love most: teaching!

The next challenge was getting there: rent a U-Haul, sell eveything we owned and drive our cars, have things shipped? There were lots of options. Though 4,000 miles was a long drive and beyond our imagination, we opted for that. We still had to sell about half of our things, and then we had to find an alternative ride for one of us to Alaska since the U-Haul only seats 3. Coincidentally, one of my cousins was getting married right around the time we were moving up. My aunt and uncle from Minnesota, along with their son and my mom were all planning to drive an RV up to Alaska for the wedding, getting there just days before us. They were willing to squeeze Aurora in, so the end of May I drove Aurora over to Minneapolis to catch her ride to Alaska. It was a special time for Aurora as she bonded with my mom during that trip.

Things just fell into place so smoothly with getting a job and moving to Alaska. While the overseas job search was a struggle, there was a sense of rightness about this move. Even more importantly, the kids were both excited about it. We'd visited Alaska a few years before and they'd had tons of fun and loved my aunt and uncle. As many people said, "It's about as far away as you can be and still be in the U.S.!" We certainly weren't moving there because we had family; it just happened that the first job Doug was offered was within an hour of family (Alaska is a huge place; to be within an hour is practically right next door!).

Two and a half years later I still shake my head at the incredible serendipity that landed us here. A few months after we moved here my mom died suddenly, then my brother died unexpectedly, and then my dad died. I cannot imagine living overseas and dealing with the grief and stress of losing so much family in so short a time. Nor can I imagine living here in Alaska if we didn't have some strong support. Instead, we are here, where my aunt and uncle have taken us under their loving wings and 'adopted us'. We are part of their family and it has been the sweetest blessing in the world. And we have developed friendships that ground us and give us the sense of belonging here.

I say over and over that our quality of life here is so much better than it was in Michigan. How do I describe that? Life can be as stressful and busy here as anywhere on this planet. Yet I have seen Doug change and grow and become a more whole person here, and both the kids have blossomed in the past few years. Sometimes it takes those radical moves to break bad habits, to shake you down to the foundation so you take a real look at just what you are standing on. When life is stripped down to nothing you can look at the world in a new way....and for us that has led to a new way of life.


Unknown said...

Nice story...thanks for sharing :)

Anonymous said...

All the best to your and your family! Thank you for sharing your message.

Unknown said...

I'm considering a job in Homer, AK and I live in Perry, ME. I quite literally couldn't have chosen a further place to move. It's comforting to hear of a "moving survivor" and that you've found happiness.

Michelle Waclawski said...

Thanks for your comment, Becky. It took me back and I re-read my post. I'm still shaking my head over this. Maine is one of the places we think we might like to live if we weren't in AK. Good luck with your decision.

Anonymous said...

My husband is in The Coast Guard and I'm getting ready to move from the Florida Keys, leave a great job in Miami and start a new life in Homer, AK. I am excited and nervous at the same time. I do know that I need to find a job or get involved in something as soon as I get there. I'm leaving a very high paced job and recognize the importance of keeping my min busy. Any advice?

Michelle Waclawski said...

There are plenty of causes and jobs that can be engaging and fulfilling in Homerand fully engage your life if you want it to. What sort of job are you leaving? Are you looking at volunteer or paid work?

Liz said...

I've been in Anchorage 2 yrs now after living in Haines 2 yrs. I have a good part time job and home school my 8 yr old son. I miss the small town life, and want to explore some communities this summer now that I have a reliable car. I'm considering Homer & Valdez. Are you still in Homer and love it? I miss having a house & gardening, but don't want to move into a subdivision.

Michelle Waclawski said...

Still in Homer and love it! Homer has a great, supportive homeschool community so that can really help. Good luck with your explorations!

Liz said...


Unknown said...

I am considering a move to alsaka-- but probably not for 2-3 years-- you mentioned the teacher salary...but from what I see, it seems pretty good and higher than a lot of other states, including most of CA. are there many special education openings in the area? I was also looking into Palmer, but I do not like wind-- and here Homer is less windy--(cold is fine) alison

Michelle Waclawski said...

Alison, Teachers salaries in Alaska are comparable or even above the national average, but cost of living is so much higher, especially in rural areas. Take that into consideration when looking at the numbers.

According to my husband, who is in education, there are always special education positions available. It is a matter of if you're looking for something specific. Be sure to apply by March for the following year as that is when districts are hiring.

Yes, I hear Homer is less windy than Palmer, and warmer in the winter (cooler in the summer).

Good luck on the move and let me know if you have other questions!

Randy said...

First off, enjoyed your story thanks for sharing. My wife ,kids and myself are looking at the Homer/ Anchor Point area to relocate to in about 12 months after our farm sells. We are both in the health care field with me being an LPN and her an STNA. I have had encouraging conversations with South Peninsula hospital for employment as has my wife. We are searching for a large property 20+ acres for me to build a home for us as concrete/carpentry was my occupation prior to nursing school.My dad and step mother used to live in Midland, Michigan where he worked for Dow, how would you compare the weather on the peninsula to that part of the state. Thanks.

Michelle Waclawski said...

If we were going to stay in Michigan, Midland was on the top of our list!

This past winter, the weather in Homer was probably as nice as or nicer than central Michigan: 30's to 50's all winter, some snow, lots of rain. However, this was not a typical winter. I don't know what typical is anymore, or if with global warming, we'll see cold winters again. But the worst we get is below zero for a week or so, then somewhere in the single digits to 30's. Our winters now feel as warm as the summers a few years back.

Lots of possibilities for health care providers in Homer--great need. Twenty acres will be out of town 10 miles probably...good luck! I'm sure you're checking out all the sources, but some things for sale won't be with real estate agents. Put the feelers out for property with the folks at the hospital as well.