Alaska has a second pandemic it needs to address: the brain-drain

Alaska has the opportunity to reverse the brain-drain that plagues our state. Each year, many college-bound students leave the state, never to call it home again. When I left for school, I thought I would too.

I’m a lifelong Alaskan from Talkeetna. I graduated as valedictorian from Susitna Valley High School and with the Early Honors Achievement award from Alaska Pacific University’s Early Honors Program in Anchorage. After spending my senior year living in Anchorage, skiing for Alaska Pacific University and interning for Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar, I left for Brunswick, Maine. There, I attend Bowdoin College, an elite, top-ranked liberal arts college. I will graduate in May with honors.

I mention all of this because, despite all my drive and aspiration, despite the infinite opportunity afforded to me through my college to work in the federal government, large corporations, or with a flashy title elsewhere, I have discovered I want to live and work here.

Millions of college students were forced by the current pandemic to pack their bags and return home. For us Alaskans studying down south, this posed a bit of a bigger obstacle than our Lower 48 friends, yet most of us managed. One day in March, I was studying in the library, preparing myself for applying to internships on the east coast, and the next I was packing everything I had into my suitcase (Xtra-tufs included) and hitching a 14-hour plane ride home.

At first, I was disappointed. No more lunches with friends, late nights studying in the library, basement parties, or sports events. However, I soon found my time at home a blessing, especially during a pandemic. I went Nordic skiing in the spring when the snow forms a hard crust and the glide is perfect, spent my summer fly fishing along the banks of glacier-fed streams and enjoyed wild blueberries in the hills. I left this past August to remote study with friends back in Maine, but I only lasted a few months — I missed Alaska.

Now I am back, and more eager than ever to stay. I’m also not alone. Every day, I talk with friends who grew up here who are itching for an opportunity to return. Alaska is a beautiful, magical, and wonderful place to live, work, and play. By some freak play of fate, Alaska college students who left the state have been given a chance to re-taste that magic, and for many of us, it’s reminded us of how much we love this place. No longer are we purely guided by our colleges and universities, the existential pressures to be in the meccas of business and intellectualism, and allure of Lower 48 opportunity. The ambition is still there, just a change of scenery. Instead, I’m writing this while looking out my window in Anchorage at a pair of moose eating a hedge — and I like that view.

So this is my call to you Alaska: Let’s make this a place where students feel they can come back to and find work. Let’s make well-paying, enjoyable, jobs accessible so that we retain the students and intelligence we need. My era of students is about to graduate into one of the most difficult job markets in history. The Last Frontier will surely feel the repercussions of this. But if we can get educated, passionate, and driven people to come back and call this place home again, I know there will be a very bright future on the horizon. After the current epidemic fades in Alaska, we can’t afford to let another one, the brain-drain, continue.


Mitchel Jurasek is a lifelong Alaskan and a member of Bowdoin College’s class of 2021.

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