It’s 5:30 on a dark, drizzly Thursday evening at the Makah Community Hall in Neah Bay, Washington — the type of night that would keep most people cozied up at home.
Outside, waves are crashing against the jagged rocks that define the Pacific coastline, and the forested foothills of the Olympics are hidden behind thick fog.
But tonight is a big night, and Neah Bay students and their families are streaming in the doors one after another, faces lit up with an excitement that only grows as the fifth-graders spot their UW mentors in the crowd.
“Kaila!” exclaims one student as she darts across the hall, dressed in a purple Alternative Spring Break (ASB) T-shirt and a construction-paper graduation cap she fashioned herself.
Tonight is the ASB family celebration. After a week of hard work (and tons of fun), Neah Bay students get to show off their digital storytelling projects and introduce their families to new friends from the UW over Indian tacos.
Alternative Spring Break
Each spring break, dozens of UW students volunteer through the UW Pipeline Project’s Alternative Spring Break program, which was founded in 2001 to connect Huskies with educational and service opportunities in rural and tribal communities across the state. This year, thanks to generous sponsor support, each of the 14 locations was able to host on-site family celebrations to wrap up the week.
“The community celebration is so important,” says Neah Bay project facilitator Meaghan Ferrick, who’s working toward her Ph.D. in the UW College of Education. “This is where relationships form. We get to build relationships with fifth-graders over the course of the week, but it’s really nice to be able to get to know the people of Neah Bay and show our appreciation to the school and the community for letting us be here.”
Telling our stories: Imagining our futures
This year’s theme was: “Telling our stories: Imagining our futures.”
It was inspired by Neah Bay Elementary School Principal Alice Murner, who suggested her students envision a future and an education that would allow them to come back to Neah Bay and contribute to their community.
“We thought, ‘That’s brilliant!’,” says Christine Stickler, director of the Pipeline Project. “It’s informed our entire project. Each of the kids is imagining a pathway to their career.”
Fifth-grade teacher Seth Vanzant was equally instrumental, says Stickler. “He was so invested in making this work for his fifth-graders and allowing the UW students access to his students throughout the week,” she says. “He has been amazingly supportive.”
It all started with a canoe journey.
For Neah Bay’s Makah tribe, canoe journeys play an important role in their culture. Canoe makers would hollow out red cedar logs, then soften and shape them with water and fire-heated rocks.
Then they observed weather conditions. When the moment was right, tribal members set to sea for hundred-mile journeys, each stop marked with a celebration.
The tradition is alive today.
Each Neah Bay student’s journey — realized on paper, with crayons — is also marked by milestones: learning how to swim and how to read, losing a tooth, celebrating a birthday. Mapping out where they’ve been helps them set the course for their future.
But there’s a big difference between knowing you want to be a scientist and knowing the steps you need to take to make that happen. A key part of this year’s ASB project was bridging that gap.
Exploring career paths
Neah Bay students interviewed the UW students — each of the seven represented a different field of study, from engineering to history to premed — about their personal journeys. They interviewed teachers and nurses at the school. And they absorbed every bit of information shared by guest speakers from the community who popped by class throughout the week: the superintendent, fishermen, a carver.
Next they got into groups, each representing a different career path, and started work on their short films outlining that journey.
Lydia Heberling, a Ph.D. student studying Native American literature at the UW, was the leader of the business group. They decided to explore two tourism-focused entrepreneurial ventures: a horse ranch and a hybrid ice cream–coffee shop.
“Even though none of the community members they heard from were in tourism, the kids were still able to extract the idea that if you want to successfully run a business, you have to be responsible with your time and be self-motivated,” she says. “They took a set of ideas away.”
The Neah Bay students storyboarded, scripted and finally shot their films using iPhones and microphones attached to bendable tripods.
They also fashioned props to aid in their productions. The art team created a jumbo-size painting tray and matching paintbrush; the business team made a small-scale horse ranch; the science team procured goggles and a white lab coat.
When they were done filming, the students reviewed the footage and started picking their favorite shots.
Then they crafted film posters that would eventually line the walls of the Makah Community Hall at the celebration dinner.
Visiting the UW this summer
This June, when the ASB students finish editing the short films, the fifth-graders will come to the UW for a tour of campus and, of course, a film screening.
Neuee Vitalis, a teacher at Neah Bay Middle School and the mother of fifth-grader Ada, says many students have never been off the reservation, let alone to Seattle.
Some of them will be the first in their families to pursue higher education, and some may never have been exposed to the idea of college before.
“For the students to have experiences outside of Neah Bay is so valuable,” says Vitalis.
“As a Husky and a teacher, I look at the trip to the UW as an early opportunity to get students thinking about their futures. I think everybody should at least try college and have the experience of getting out in the world and knowing what’s out there beyond this beautiful place we call home.”
It takes a village to raise a child. People watch out for each other’s kids, and as a parent, I really appreciate the UW students’ coming out and spending their spring break investing in my community and my kids. — Neuee Vitalis