Commentary

University of Alaska offers paths to success for non-traditional students

The writer was able to explore different fields and jobs while earning a degree

August 20, 2022 5:00 am
Freddie R. Olin IV stands with his wife Annauk Olin and son Daał Olin on April, 29, 2022, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks commencement. (Olin family photo)

Freddie R. Olin IV stands with his wife Annauk Olin and son Daał Olin on April, 29, 2022, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks commencement. (Olin family photo)

As the new school year ramps up for faculty and students at our University of Alaska campuses statewide, this year is my first as an adult that I will not be an undergraduate student in the UA system. Because so much focus about life after high school is brought toward higher education or vocational-technical training, I would like to share my experiences as a non-traditional student while celebrating the University of Alaska.

My first full school year as a traditional freshman began at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the fall semester of 2001, in the College of Engineering and Mines, as a declared mechanical engineering student. I was under a rosy impression that my creative bent could be used in a formal engineering and design education program, but that ended up not being the case fairly quickly. 

My next stint as a UAF student between 2002-2003 was in the Department of Communication and Journalism, where I took a series of photography classes throughout that single school year. My creative talents blossomed behind a camera lens and in the old school photo printing dark room. I often recall the enjoyable simplicity of life spending hours and hours in the darkroom tinkering with photo negatives and print exposures, getting a few prints here and there just right. My instructor throughout that year ended up buying one of my more high quality prints, and sometimes I wonder if it is still hanging up somewhere. 

As my dreams of becoming a professional photographer grew, I decided I needed a regular income for purchasing all of the camera and digital scanning and printing equipment, so I took some time off from classes and worked odd jobs here and there, ranging from being a warehouseman to customer service at retail stores. These types of jobs did not bring in a lot of income, so I began considering employment that really would bring in the thousands of dollars I needed. Later in 2003 I learned that my late cousin started working on the North Slope on oil rigs, and I immediately thought to myself: “If my cousin can work on the Slope, so can I.”  

Doyon Rig 141 is in overhaul status in the Kuparuk River Oil Field in October 2011. (Photo by Freddie R. Olin IV)
Doyon Rig 141 is in overhaul status in the Kuparuk River Oil Field in October 2011. (Photo by Freddie R. Olin IV)

I ended up starting work on the Slope in October 2004, and raked in the dollars I needed with a two-week-on, two-week-off schedule, with room and board provided while working. The remote site work schedule saved a lot on living costs and I finally was able to save for all of that professional photography equipment. Being able to work on the Slope at-will and have most of the savings to sign up for classes at-will was a pivotal point in my young adult life. So for spring semester 2005 I signed up for a photography class at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Department of Journalism and Public Communications.

This shows the vista from Kincaid Park in Anchorage in July 2005. (Photo by Freddie R. Olin IV)
This shows the vista from Kincaid Park in Anchorage in July 2005. (Photo by Freddie R. Olin IV)

I found that it was great to have a low barrier for entry into class offerings at either UAF or UAA, and was able to enjoy real-life experiences in each university and department class offerings, while in between semesters I worked on the Slope for savings. After several years of this routine in my mid-twenties, I decided that the issues as an artist I wanted to explore were political issues, and that perhaps I could add more to the Alaska Native community as a professional, rather than as an artist. As I began nearing my 30s, these political pursuits began significantly changing my life.

Because the UA system is flexible as a whole for traditional, non-traditional and vocational-technical students, I was able to work part-time and attend classes part-time and successfully receive my degree in December 2021.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, speaks as Freddie R. Olin IV stands to the right in February 2013. It was Olin's first session as a staff member for Olson. (Photo by Todd Paris, UAF College of Community and Rural Development)
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, speaks as Freddie R. Olin IV stands to the right in February 2013. It was Olin’s first session as a staff member for Olson. (Photo by Todd Paris, UAF College of Community and Rural Development)

By spring 2013, I was working during the day full-time in the Alaska State Capitol building, taking two evening classes and one virtual class through the UAF Rural Development program, and training at all times in between for what was supposed to be my fourth wildland firefighting season. The UAF RD program was one of the first UA four-year degree programs tailored for working professionals during the day, and many of the classes are scheduled by teleconference in the evenings. The RD program and the whole UAF College of Rural and Community Development remote learning system was by default positioned well to handle the recent pandemic disruptions, and classes resumed as they normally do.

Coincidentally, when the pandemic began March 2020, and life slowed down to a halt for many, I began in earnest planning for and adhering to a strict class enrollment schedule to finally achieve a Bachelor of Arts in Rural Development through UAF. Because the UA system is flexible as a whole for traditional, non-traditional and vocational-technical students, I was able to work part-time and attend classes part-time and successfully receive my degree in December 2021. My parents were and still are my biggest supporters, so they were overjoyed during the in-person UAF Commencement ceremony at the end of April 2022. 

Freddie R. Olin IV holds his son Daał Olin in Cambridge, Mass., where his wife Annauk Olin attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a master’s degree in linguistics from 2019 to 2021. (Olin family photo)

Life as a non-traditional student has many perks: You can get hands-on experience with classes here and there, test several degree programs and all the while work jobs that provide real-world experiences. Those experiences were most often rich, like I had working on the North Slope and wildland firefighting, topped off by working as staff for elected offices in our state capital, Juneau. As the new school year begins and as students wear their dreams on their sleeves, the UA system can be celebrated as being fully supportive of those who are making non-traditional tracks. 

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Freddie R. Olin IV
Freddie R. Olin IV

Freddie R. Olin IV is Koyukon Athabascan, born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. With diverse experiences from working on oil rigs on the North Slope and wildland firefighting in both Alaska and the Lower 48 to staffing political offices in the Alaska State Capitol, his favorite is being a family man with his wife and their two children. He is currently employed by Gana-A'Yoo, Limited, an ANCSA village corporation based in Anchorage. His views and commentary do not reflect those of Gana-A'Yoo.

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