First-year optometry student Rebecca Wilbur and freshman Celine Yip are among the countless Pacific students who come for more than an education— they come for hope for a different future, for themselves, their families and their communities.Jenni Luckett | Editor
Quinhaguk is a village of about 700 people in Southwest Alaska, on the edge of the Bering Sea. There’s commercial fishing and a public school to provide work, but most people live a subsistence lifestyle. They hunt and fish, speak the native Yu’pik Eskimo language, and meld the traditions of thousands of years with limited modern convenience.
The nearest regional hub is Bethel, ninth-largest community in the state at 6,000 people. To get there, Quinhaguk residents book a flight on a small six-seat plane (one that also makes deliveries of pricey store-bought goods), or they take a snowmachine across the tundra in winter or a boat upriver in summer.
Life in Quinhaguk is physical, and it’s familial.
“I grew up very different compared to most everybody I know,” said Rebecca Wilbur, a first-year student in Pacific University’s College of Optometry.
“As a family, we had to work for food — physically work. Running water is just being introduced. By age 10, I could haul a five-gallon bucket of water. I didn’t think of it as different or difficult.”
Everyone helped, because everyone was connected. Wilbur estimates she’s related to about half of the village, and she grew up with 35 first cousins who were as close as siblings.
“People are so friendly, so nice,” she said. “Even if they don’t have much, they’re the most giving people. I grew up with people who were very humble and … in general, just good people.”
It’s a life she appreciates and misses.
“My favorite thing to do is be out in the wilderness, walking on the tundra, being upriver fishing and camping. My best memories are playing at the beach, looking at the commercial boats on the ocean, sitting in a tent waiting for the rain to clear. Seeing wildlife and smelling the fresh tundra.”
It’s been a long time, though, since Wilbur has done those things. As much as she loves her home, she also knew that her opportunities there would be limited. That’s why, at 14, she left home to attend a selective, government-run boarding school in Sitka, nearly 1,000 miles away.
“My parents agreed I needed a challenge,” she said. “It was such a great experience as a young person to be around people who were so ambitious.
“It creates a momentum in you to continue to do better and better. I realized I could do something really great with my life.”
It was in high school that she developed the dream of becoming an optometrist and studying at Pacific, as well as the idea of bringing those optometry skills back to her community.
She admits her plans wavered through her undergraduate years at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she changed her major a few times and also struggled to finish her degree with a newborn in her senior year.
“That just proves how anybody can finish school with a full load. If you can go to school raising a family, you can do anything you set your mind to,” she said.