Taking Auburn to Alaska: A Conversation with Sarah Grace Durrance

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When Sarah Grace Durrance reached Dillingham, Alaska, to start her new job teaching first graders, it was the first time she stepped onto Alaskan soil. The 2014 Auburn graduate arrived in August in her new community, which is located on the southwestern corner of the state 330 miles from Anchorage and is only accessible by boat or plane.

She grew up in Douglasville, Georgia, before beginning her studies on the Plains, where she majored in early childhood education. She is literally from an Auburn family: Her mother, also a teacher, and her dad, an aerospace engineer, are both Auburn graduates, as are her aunt and uncle. Two brothers attended Auburn as well and a cousin is in school now.

Below is a brief conversation with Sarah Grace about her new surroundings. She is also detailing her experience through her blog at www.SGAlaskanAdventure.blogspot.com.

How did you decide to move to Alaska, even though you had never visited the state?

Last year I had a great first-year experience teaching in Waco, Texas. My parents were living in Waco and four of my five brothers were also in Texas. My mom, perhaps the biggest Auburn fan in central Texas, was a great mentor that first year of teaching. Toward the end of the school year, I knew I wanted to find a unique teaching experience in a location where I had never visited. My parents had taken an assignment in Canada and I knew the time was right to take a risk and begin a new adventure. I don't want to look back on life with regret; I'd rather take some chances and experience new things. Everything I had heard about Alaska was amazing. I knew that moving to Alaska would be the perfect next step.

Tell us about your first impression when you arrived in Alaska?

It was breathtaking. I saw the mountains as I flew from Seattle to Anchorage and was "blown away" by the incredible beauty of this land. The views cannot be described, but they are spectacular. When I arrived at Dillingham, it felt like home. People were there to greet me and they went out of their way to make me feel truly welcome in their village. I have to admit I was surprised at the prices for ordinary foods, household items and even a simple bottle of coke. For example, a bottle of shampoo costs $9 compared to $4 in the lower 48 states. Everything is rather expensive because it's difficult to transport items up here.

You mentioned that your classroom is coincidentally painted blue and orange. How else are you making Alaska feel like Auburn?

Yes, Coach Malzahn would be pleased. I wear Auburn attire as much as I can! Jackets, vests, long-sleeved T-shirts, etc. I also have a class pet—a small, stuffed Aubie mascot—that goes home with one of my students each weekend. They keep a journal and write about their experiences with Aubie. I purchased it at J&M Bookstore and I used him in my class last year in Texas as well. Kids love it.

Are you prepared for the cold weather?

If you ask any of my close friends and family, they will tell you that I am not accustomed to cold weather. I've been snowboarding in New Mexico a number of times but have no experience living in subzero conditions. I have brought jackets and boots but plan to buy more appropriate clothing as the temperature drops throughout the following months. When I arrived the temperature was between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit and beautiful outside. Hopefully I can make it through the winter here.

Tell us about having to sleep in your classroom for the first month.

Dillingham is a fishing village and our apartments become available as the fishing season wraps up. In the meantime, teachers "camp" at the high school until apartments become available. There were three other teachers in the classroom with me. Just imagine lots of air mattresses and suitcases everywhere. We got to know each other very quickly and I'm thankful we had a place to stay. It's all part of the adventure.

What is your favorite Auburn memory or experience?

My favorite Auburn memory is Auburn football!!! I was a freshman in college when we won the national championship and I was a senior when we won the SEC championship. It really doesn't get better than that. I witnessed some of the most remarkable games in person. I rushed on the field after the Iron Bowl, I saw the Hail Mary at the UGA game; memories like that are priceless. That was the hardest part about moving up here, knowing that I would not be able to go to any Auburn games this year. I knew I would not only be far away from my immediate family but I would be away from my Auburn family. Thankfully, I can keep up with the Tigers through the Internet and I've been able to watch one game on television.

What do you enjoy in your spare time? Any new hobbies in Alaska? Fishing?

During my first week in Alaska, I was able to help during net fishing. This was a real treat because the Bristol Bay area, where I live, is the salmon capitol of the world. I was able to filet the fish that we caught. It was a new experience for me, but my brothers would be very proud. We've also been hiking around small mountains and lakes. Folks in Dillingham enjoy hosting cookouts and we've been to several of those too.

Tell us about the local radio station doing a story on you?

Matt Martin, one of the local radio hosts, wanted to do a piece on me because he knew that I had never been to Alaska. He followed me around the first day asking lots of questions and recording my first impressions of Dillingham. Matt put together a very nice five-minute interview that was featured on KDLG (http://kdlg.org/post/new-teachers-first-day-dillingham), their local radio station. Now, sometimes when I walk around the village or go to a church function people will ask if I am "that girl from the radio piece." It's a great conversation starter. People are very friendly and they are curious what it is like for someone to come "all the way from Alabama." I tell them that I already love Dillingham and and my new first graders. Maybe some of them will be in the Auburn Class of 2031!

Overall, living in Dillingham thus far has been a true blessing. I can't wait to see what the rest of this journey has to show me. I am amazed at what I have learned in just a few weeks and overwhelmed just thinking about what I might see and learn over the next few years. If you would have told me this time last year starting my first year of teaching that I would be in Alaska right now, I would have thought you were crazy. It is amazing how things change so drastically. I wanted to do something out of my comfort zone, a challenge and a risk! I got all of those things here in Alaska. But above all of that, I have gained a sense of happiness in my job and lifestyle. I could not be more satisfied with the choice I made in coming up here! This is an amazing blessing for me and I cannot wait to see what the future holds!

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