Laura Marcus, founder of The Arete Project, stands in front of the campus, lovingly called the "Hobbit Hole." 
    Slideshow Icon 9 slides
Enlarge Icon
Laura Marcus, founder of The Arete Project, stands in front of the campus, lovingly called the "Hobbit Hole."
Credit: NPR

In Alaska's Wilderness, A New Vision Of Higher Learning

In Glacier Bay, Alaska, mountains rush up farther and faster from the shoreline than almost anywhere else on the planet. Humpback whales, halibut and sea otters ply the waters that lap rocky, pine-crowned islands, and you can stick a bare hook in the water and pull out dinner about as fast as it takes to say so.

This is the place 31-year-old Laura Marcus chose for her Arete Project. Or just maybe, this place chose her.

Arete in Greek means "excellence." And Marcus' Arete is a tiny, extremely remote program that offers college credit for a combination of outdoor and classroom-based learning. It's also an experiment in just how, what and why young people are supposed to live and learn together in a world that seems more fragile than ever. It's dedicated, Marcus says, to "the possibility of an education where there were stakes beyond individual achievement — where the work that students were doing ... actually mattered."

Marcus's own college dream began with a rejection. As a high schooler in Indiana, more than anything, she wanted to go to Deep Springs College. It's set on a working cattle ranch in California where, on top of their studies, students do hard outdoor labor and practice self-governance — that is, they help run the school and make decisions collaboratively.

"I called up the admissions office to plead my case, not knowing that at the time that the admissions office was a 19-year-old guy that I was talking to on the phone, and basically was told, sorry, we won't consider your application." The reason? From its founding in 1917 up until 2018, Deep Springs accepted only men. "And so that ended that dream for the moment, but I really never lost sight of that."

By the time she got to Yale, Marcus had decided that if she wouldn't be allowed into Deep Springs, she would found a new one — this time, open to all.

Marcus believes that the traditional education system, even in its most excellent form, fails in its stated mission of preparing citizens and leaders, because of its constant focus on individual achievement. Actually, she would say that the traditional system is "inimical" to its stated mission. Four years of living among fishermen and hunters in rural Alaska have not cured her of a penchant for 20-dollar words.

Marcus spent some time as a ranger in Yosemite and Glacier National Parks. Then Deep Springs came calling — they had voted to become co-ed, and did she want to work for them? Recruiting the first-ever class of women?

She did. Only to have two members of the college's board take the college to court to try to stop them from letting any woman in. (The challenge eventually failed, and Deep Springs admitted its first class with women students in 2018).

Marcus had a group of extraordinary, bright, brave young women and no place for them to study. The Arete project was born that summer: on a blueberry farm in California.

The next summer she found a new site in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here the students could try their hand at milking a cow, putting up preserves or pouring concrete for a set of stairs.

And after a few years of experimenting on a shoestring budget, Arete found its way here to the Hobbit Hole. It's a tiny homestead on a sheltered bay near the fishing community of Elfin Cove in Southeast Alaska. To get here from Juneau, it's 25 minutes by seaplane or 6 hours by ferry, reachable only by kayak at high tide. The Hobbit Hole was once a summer fishing camp for the local Huna Tlingit people, later a fox farm, and in the 1970s a "fishing commune" known for its raucous parties.

It's the current site of the Inian Islands Institute, an environmental education nonprofit founded by Zach Brown, a scientist and biologist who grew up in nearby Gustavus. Brown and Marcus were introduced over email while she was at Cambridge University, picking up a masters in philosophy of education between Arete sessions, by a mutual mentor who knew of their shared interests. Marcus came here for the first time in 2015. On August 17 of this year Marcus and Brown got married.

This past summer Arete accepted 12 students for four weeks. They recruited from the City University of New York; Yale University; Berea College in Kentucky; Hillsdale, an evangelical Christian college in Michigan; the University of Alaska; Brigham Young University; and from Minerva Schools at KGI, a brand-new venture-funded experimental college.

Arete is free to all, funded by small individual donors and family foundations. Marcus says the idea behind it is this: "Take students who normally would never have interacted with one another, who never would have gone to college with one another, or maybe never even seen one another, put them all in this really extraordinary experience, the likes of which pretty much none of them have ever had before, and see what happens."

Sometimes what happens is personal, and emotional. The seminar topic this summer was people's relationship to nature — ranging from traditional Tlingit knowledge to using big data to track wildlife populations.

One day in seminar, in the airy bunkhouse with its wood stove, the students pick up an ongoing discussion of climate change. Kelsey Hernandez, who was a student teacher at the University of Alaska, talks about her fear that children here will grow up wearing masks because of wildfires, having to leave their home villages as permafrost melts, never again hearing certain birds.

"And that for me is the most terrifying," Hernandez tells the group, "to think that the group of kindergartners that I just taught, that by the time they graduate, some of the things they've grown to love in their world might not exist."

But some of the other students push back, saying these fears are not far off. Yasamin Sharifi says where she comes from, little children are already suffering because of environmental damage and fuel shortages due to the embargo. "In Iran, you can see that the smog is worse ... people are wearing masks."

Marie Traore graduated from the City University of New York. She chimes in that she's seen children in Mali growing up among garbage. Her voice breaks. "It's really frustrating that we cut the conversation as a future thing — this isn't a future thing, it's a now thing."

These are tough conversations, with no easy answers. But work and time outdoors in the rich and brief Alaska summer tie the students back to nature and to each other. If you were writing a grant application, it would say that Arete exists at the crossroads of liberal arts, place-based education and experiential learning.

But that doesn't really capture just how excited 20-year-old Danae Sollie, who comes from a religious Christian family in Minnesota, gets about picking up power tools for the first time and building an Adirondack-style bench. Or the enthusiasm of Julia Salseda, who grew up in Los Angeles and just graduated from Yale, who spent hours upon hours this July scraping and tanning a halibut skin, using deer brains and egg yolk, to make into a knife sheath for her dad. Or the moment where Sharifi, whose family immigrated from Iran to Florida and who had never before been fishing or boating, caught three rockfish from a kayak in 15 minutes. "Thank you fish," as whispered as she bled them behind the gills.

The students wash dishes, bunk together in one lofted space, play word games, strum a ukulele and brush each others' hair. At the end of the month they get college credit in Environmental Studies and, quite often, a nudge in a new life direction.

Abe Norman came here last year after graduating from Hillsdale College. He had already grown up fluent in several worlds: his mother's from Uganda, he attended school in inner-city Minneapolis and spent summers on his grandparents' cattle ranch. He scored a full ride to Hillsdale but remained apart from a campus culture that he found too politically conservative.

The highlight of his time in Alaska, he says, was using a tomato can to dig postholes in the rocky soil for a new woodshed.

"There's pictures of us laying on the ground, like arm-deep in the hole and ... it's especially fun when it's raining."

When he got back, he had a third-round interview for a solid corporate job in Minneapolis. Walking down the hall in a suit and tie, "walking past all these people kind of droning away at their cubicles," he realized that he didn't ever want to work on the 26th floor, of anywhere.

He decided to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, a fire chief. This summer, he's back at Arete as an assistant, overseeing the construction projects and helping other students figure out how to use a hand-cranked blacksmith forge that someone turned up on the property.

Norman loves the natural beauty here — and the freedom. "The freedom that you get as a student is unlike what they've experienced previously in college or even potentially at home."

Freedom means letting students go out solo kayaking or hiking, with only a radio. He says it also means the power to make decisions, like in their regular self-governance meetings: "Laura does a really good job of letting the students in on that process, those decisions."

It's not always smooth sailing. Sometimes the students override her ideas, or divide against themselves. Right now, they're pushing her for more generous financial aid policies for the next phase of the Arete project. This will be a full gap-year program in the nearby village of Gustavus. The plans call for including more local young people as well as students from around the country .

Marcus isn't that fond of words like "impact" or "scale." "What Arete does is replicable," she explains, "But I do not think it's scalable. I think that if we tried to do this with 50 students or 100 students or 1,000 students or 10,000 students, we would necessarily lose something if not everything of what makes this education unique." [Copyright 2019 NPR]