A Wild Ride: Teresa's Alaskan Adventures

Photo of DO-IT student Theresa

My name is Teresa, and I was born in 1983 on Kodiak Island, Alaska. I have a younger brother Fredrick, who was also on born on Kodiak. When I was young my family moved from Kodiak to Craig on Prince of Whales Island in southeast Alaska. Craig was a small rural village whose industry depended on the commercial fishing fleet and logging. My bother and I grew up on a relatively subsistence diet. We harvested about 100 pounds of salmon every summer for the following year. My family lived in Craig for seven years before moving to North Pole, Alaska. In North Pole we got a bit of a culture shock as we found ourselves near the big city of Fairbanks. I had never seen elevators, movie theaters, two lane highways, fast-food restaurants or anything taller then a five-story building. It took a bit to adjust to the high paced life of a big city. After six years, our family moved again to Ketchikan, in southeast Alaska where I lived for two years until graduated from high school and was accepted at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) where I continue to live as I work on my graduate degree in biology.

If you were to look over my high school and college transcripts you might think that going to college and getting a Bachelor's of Science could be considered a forgone conclusion, but academic achievement has not always been an easy path. In first grade I scored a 1% on the Iowa Basic exams out of a possible 99%. It wasn’t until third grade that I was diagnosed with a learning disability, dyslexia. I was classified as a "GLD" - gifted learning disabled student. Living in the rural bush of Alaska where I grew up, teachers possessed limited tools or knowledge of students with disabilities. Many teachers felt I was just extra work in an already crowded learning environment. I was offered little to no help and told I would learn to read properly on my own. I spent many frustrated days wondering why I could not read as fast or as well as my peers. At times it seemed like I was the only one with a problem, and I was just stupid. I worked hard with my mother to develop my own learning strategies and methods. After the fourth grade I finally was able to read at my own grade level; however, I still took longer to read then any of my classmates. My mother and father seemed to be two of the few people that cared about my studies. I worked hard with my family practicing and reviewing my homework with them. Being dyslexic, high school English was not one of my favorite classes. Despite how much I enjoyed the stories, I hated trying to read aloud to the class. I would read slowly, occasionally mispronounce words, and fumble over sentences. My handwriting and spelling were atrocious, making written assignments difficult. Often I felt like an idiot scrambling to turn in handwritten assignments or exams.

Realizing I had difficulties in reading I set out to improve myself by adopting different strategies. This included using a pencil to trace the sentence when reading. I often visited the library to work on my book reports after school. After a month of this the librarian noticed I had read some of the books listed under the Battle of the Books competition and asked if I would be willing to join the team. In Battle of the Books, students read the select list of books, discuss and quiz each other. Then the team of three competes in a quiz show type format answering questions on the books. I decided to join the team and had to inform my teammates about my disability as they sped through the books much faster than I could. However, of the books I did read, I found I could answer the majority of questions. After much work and practice we went to the district high school competition and won! I couldn't believe that we did it. In the state competition we didn't place very high, but we did a good job. My teammates admitted that at first they were a bit worried about having a teammate with dyslexia who took three times longer to read the same material, but, as we worked together, we found that the speed of my reading did not affect the retention of the material. I gained a great amount of confidence in my reading skill and learned just to accept that I had to put in some extra work when it came to writing.

During high school I also worked as a tutor for the North Pole Middle School where I was able to help several students with learning disabilities. Often students would laugh that a student with dyslexia was teaching students about Homer or Shakespeare, but I was able to show many of them different coping skills as well as review the major concepts of the literature with them. I also helped many of them acquire an appreciation for educational achievement, and I used my own trials as a way to show them that they were not alone and that they could also succeed.

When I graduated from high school I entered college at UAF to study biology, and began my involvement with DO-IT in my senior year. To enter the field of biology I needed to gain hands on experience, and in my last semester of college I found I had little field or lab experience and would face a very difficult road in obtaining it. This lack of experience is a critical flaw to potential employers. So when I found an opportunity, through a DO-IT AccessSTEM internship, to work under the Alaska Department of Field and Game (ADF&G) wildlife veterinarian, I jumped at the chance. At first I was afraid I would not be able to contribute to the lab, but my supervisor found that I was a good hands-on learner. Often she would show me what to do and make quick notes in print. We found I could not read her cursive, so she simply printed everything for me. Beyond that I found I did not need much in terms of extra help. Most instructions were simple and spoken aloud, and more detailed information was printed from the computer. As part of my internship I was able to help the veterinarian with everything from the main project, (the lice infestation among wild canids in Alaska), to various animal necropsies, avian flu checks, basic lab protocol, and introduction to the various skills of a wildlife biologist. I was able to meet many of the ADF&G biologists and talk to them about future career options and goals. The DO-IT program helped me find a fantastic internship that allowed me to get into a real wildlife lab and work with an ADF&G veterinarian and biologists. I never would have had the chance to work with all these great people if not for DO-IT. I graduated from UAF with a GPA above 3.8 with my B.S in Biology and minor in Wildlife Biology, and I was able to enter UAF's graduate school and continue my internship as my master's thesis the following semester. Without the internship, I would not have had the chance to work so quickly on such an exciting thesis in graduate school.

Another important aspect of my involvement in DO-IT was peer support. Before I joined AccessSTEM I did not have much in terms of peer support. Most often I did not know that there were other students with learning disabilities in class until the teacher either mentioned it to me or I saw them at the testing services office. I would sometimes feel embarrassed by my disability and hope no one would notice. In finding DO-IT, I also found that there are fellow students with disabilities like mine in college. I realized I was not alone and that I had nothing to be ashamed of. This knowledge and connection to other students with disabilities has been helpful as I continue my graduate studies.

When I finish graduate school my career goal is to continue my work in wildlife biology, preferably with ADF&G in the division of conservation. In doing so, I will become the third generation in my family to enter the field of wildlife conservation. It has been said that, "Our fish and wildlife resources are our original Permanent Fund," and I tend to agree with this. I want to be involved in the determination, conservation, and continued use of these resources. Fishing, hunting, trapping, tourism, and subsistence all count on strong natural resources, and by helping with wise management of these resources I can help the economic viability of all Alaskans. As Alaskan communities grow, roads are built, and our populations expand we will need to find a balance between development and conservation. Through research we will be able find ways to develop and still maintain strong, healthy fish and wildlife populations. I want to work under ADF&G in the division of conservation and hope to be appointed to the Board of Game to help in the management decisions of our natural resources.