Local teacher heads north

| 18 Apr 2019 | 11:21

    by Laurie Gordon
    Travis Fernandez of Hampton was a staple on local soccer fields, but now he lives and works 3,737 miles away as a Special Education Teacher in the far reaches of Alaska, in a town called Quinhagak, that's accessible only by plane.
    After graduating high school, Frenandez attended Lycoming College. The school's Education Department started a partnership with the Lower Kuskokwim School District
    “Teacher candidates were allowed to apply to student teach at one of their schools,” Fernandez said. “When I was presented with this choice, I did not want to pass it by as I would have regretted not experiencing it.”
    After student teaching, the director of personnel told Fernandez that if he was interested, they would be more than happy to have him back to teach.
    “All of my student teaching turned out to be almost like a half a semester long interview,” he said. “When I decided to come back, I did have an over-the-phone interview specifically with Kuinerrarmiut Elitnaurviat School to see if that site was a good fit for me.”
    The reason coming back appealed to Fernandez was for the culture and life experiences.
    “I thoroughly enjoyed assimilating with the culture and learning about the Yup’ik people,” he said. “They are incredibly nice and welcoming and the same could be said about the students as well.”
    Yup'ik is pronounced "yoop-eek," and means "real person" in the native Yup'ik language. The Yupik live in western, southwestern, and southcentral Alaska as well as in the far east of Russia.
    Fernandez' official title is the 6-12 Special Education Teacher, and he started in January after finishing his student teaching and their Christmas break.
    “The biggest difference I've noticed is that there is a great importance of keeping their culture in mind,” he said. “We try to be mindful at the school and respect their culture and way of lives as much as possible. For the most part, we feel like the guests in the village coming into their community and teaching their kids.”
    Fernandez said that he tries to share as many of his childhood experiences with the children as possible because of how different is was growing up in New Jersey compared to Quinhagak.
    “They like to hear stories about where I’m from,” he said.
    Quinhagak is located on the Kanektok River and near the Arolik River, approximately a mile from the Kuskokwim Bay of the Bering Sea. Some of the students at Kuinerrarmiut Elitnaurviat have never seen a tree before. The easiest access to the village is by plane, however, in the winter when the ground is frozen, you can travel by snow machine or four-wheeler to places.
    “Alaskan winters are interesting,” Fernandez said. “You don’t get as much snow out here on the Yukon Delta as you would think, but it does get very cold. Most houses have oil heating or electronic heaters. Since the weather is harsher in the winter and planes fly when it’s safe, food is harder to come by so you have to plan accordingly.”
    He said that buying food in bulk online and having it flown in ahead of time is the best thing to do.
    “The natives still rely heavily on their subsistence lifestyle though,” Fernandez said. “They hunt caribou, moose, walrus, seal, birds and fish. Hunting and fishing are the cheapest means of getting food for the natives and the best.”
    Buying food from the store in the village is more expensive. A family sized back of potato chips, for example, can cost up to 10 dollars for one bag.
    “The coldest it has been since I’ve been here is -35 degrees Fahrenheit with a -50 degrees Fahrenheit wind chill, Fernandez said. “We did not cancel school during this, we only delayed the opening to allow more students time to get to school.”
    As for sports, basketball is the favorite. Everyone plays it and the students get the most excited for it. The school also has a wrestling, cross country, volleyball and NYO (Native Youth Olympics) teams.
    Though starting a soccer program in Quinhagak is intriguing to Fernandez, it would have to be an indoor sport and there are not many areas outside of the school to play.
    “The tundra ground is almost always wet in the spring, summer, and fall when there isn’t snow on the ground,” he said. “This has been something I have considered and would look to see how many students would be interested.”
    With few jobs in the village, Fernandez said that not many families have a steady source of income. They can work at the store, post office, hardware store, and school which are the most common places to work. Others find themselves working for UPS as the village deliverer, agents for the local airline companies, or selling crafts and animal hides that they hunt.
    “When the kids travel for sports, it's usually by plane to another village, or by snow machine if it is safe enough. Since being here, I’ve been able to eat walrus and seal. The natives are the only ones that can legally hunt seal and walrus for sustenance purposes since it is an important source of food for them. They make sure to use as much of the animal as possible and tend not to hunt for sport.”
    Fernandez isn't in Hampton anymore, he's in a whole new world.