When Rick Collins graduated from Ketchikan High School in 1987, he knew he wasn’t coming back. Ketchikan, Alaska doesn’t look like much at first glance and Collins thought he wanted to make a life for himself elsewhere. Collins was born and raised in Ketchikan, and when he left to go to college he found himself missing the island while he was away.
“When I left after high school, I remember thinking I’m gone, I’m not coming back,” said Collins. “In my mind, I thought I’m going to go live down south for a while and then I’ll figure it out. After I was down there for about a month I realized how badly I wanted to come home and I knew from then on that Ketchikan was definitely where I was coming back to. This place is very special to me.”
It didn’t take Collins long to realize how much he missed his hometown. While he was gone he started to realize all the thing he was missing back home.
“I took it for granted that I got to go boating and fishing and those kinds of things,” said Collins. “Then I went south and yeah it was dry and nice and I got to go to rock concerts for the first time but I started looking at it from what I was missing, the connections and the family. All my family lives here and my wife’s family lives here and when you having that kind of thing pulling you it’s kinda hard to leave.”
QUALITY OF LIFE
Collins is one of many Kayhi graduates who came back home. Unlike Collins, Sarah Campbell knew from the moment she graduated, in 1992, that she wanted to come back to Ketchikan.
“I went to school in Bellingham, WA and when I would go to Seattle all the Ketchikan kids would meet up and get together that weekend,” said Campbell. “There’s just something really familiar and comfortable and safe about the people in Ketchikan. You just know that they’re your friends forever and you wanna be around them.”
Throughout Campbell’s lifetime she has felt the unwavering support of Ketchikan. Some might wonder how a small town of less than ten thousand people could be so enticing.
“It is that sense of community, you really feel like you matter, you feel that you belong,” said Campbell. “When you’re not around people notice, and that’s comforting. I think that’s important and it makes people feel supported so that they can do what they want to do, be what they want to be, and that’s the draw of Ketchikan.”
Campbell believes that what makes Ketchikan so special is the sense of comradery throughout the town.
“It’s all about connection and being with each other, and knowing that you have people that care about you,” said Campbell. “I think that’s what a big part of our success here is at Ketchikan High School. We care about our kids a great deal, and it shows. It was a major reason of why I wanted to come back here and teach. My teachers cared about me. My teachers made my high school experience incredible, so much so that it inspired me to want to become a teacher. That’s why I’m back here and now this is my 16th year at Ketchikan High School and it’s just so much fun. I love it.”
Campbell isn’t the only one who was drawn back to the comfort of Ketchikan. Alisa Thompson, class of 2001, grew up in Ketchikan and missed the comfort of home while she was away. Thompson moved to Dallas, TX after college and missed bumping into a friendly face everywhere she went.
“It was funny because I used to go to this grocery store that was right by our house in Dallas and every time I went I never saw another person that I knew,” said Thompson. “I remember lamenting to Chet that ‘Gosh, you know I remember going to the store and they would know who I was and they’d ask ‘oh, how’s your mom?’ when I was checking out and I missed that kind of feel. In a big city you’re just kind of one face on the map.”
TEACHING IN KETCHIKAN
Rick Collins learned that he had a passion for teaching during the last quarter of his bachelor of science in biology.
“I had to TA a class,” said Collins. “I needed one extra credit and my professor said ‘hey why don’t you do this’ and I really liked it. Then I graduated and started filling out dental school applications and I was like ‘gosh I don’t really know if I want to do this.’ I had a lot of second thoughts. At the time teaching salaries in Alaska were around #1 in the nation so it was going to be a good living. I was dating my wife at that point in time who was gonna be a teacher and it was a good way to come home. It just kinda fell together and I ended up loving it.”
In today’s economy teachers in Alaska certainly make enough to get by but Collins doesn’t believe that teacher’s salaries compare to what they used to be.
“Not from a financial standpoint, you can still make a living obviously,” said Collins. “It used to be that teaching couples would have beach homes and that was really commonplace for the generation ahead of me. It gets back to what do you like to do. If you truly like to teach and you truly want to live in Ketchikan then have at it. I think the depth of our applicants might not be as deep going forward.”
While both Collins and his wife moved back to Ketchikan to teach, this isn’t the case with most people. Cole Maxwell and his family decided to move to Ketchikan in 2008 because of the opportunities Ketchikan could provide for both them and their daughter. Ketchikan had recovered from the closing of the pulp mill and reinvented it’s identity in tourism while keeping its strong roots and history. It was this refocus on tourism that stabilized the economy and provided multiple opportunities for employment. Cole’s wife, Anita, didn’t have a job secured in Ketchikan but that didn’t deter the Maxwells from making the move. Ketchikan is a little town but at the same time it’s economy is diverse enough for people with varying skills to find work without issue.
“In Montana I was making about $35,000 a year and my salary about doubled by moving here,” said Maxwell. “The cost of living here in Ketchikan is about 10 to 15 percent higher than it was in Montana, but that pay increase still put us ahead. When we first moved up here Anita didn’t have a job but we knew she would find one. She started looking right when we decided to move up here and was working at Big Brothers Big Sisters within a month or so of us moving here.”
Since moving to Ketchikan Cole and Anita have both had been able to change jobs multiple times. Another vivid example of this can be found within the Thompson household. Alisa is currently a preschool teacher at Point Higgins Elementary and her husband, Chet, is a project manager and partial owner of Marble Construction.
“I was going to make more here than I was making in Dallas at a private school, but Chet was kind of the force on that(moving back to Ketchikan),” said Thompson. “He was offered a position and then my dream job became available. It really didn’t matter to me how much it cost because we just wanted to be back in our home.”
If Chet hadn’t been able to find a job in his field in Ketchikan the Thompsons may never have been able to move home.
When choosing a career path everyone considers the salary they will have after graduation. It’s no secret that teaching isn’t a highly paid profession yet we still end up with teachers that truly enjoy what they do. This happens because of the impact previous teachers had on their students. Alisa Thompson went through some tough times as a teenager and it was her teachers that helped her through.
“Long story short my father got cancer when I was in Schoenbar and I had two teachers at Schoenbar that totally took me in,” said Thompson. “They would bring me things and pull me off to the side and say ‘hey we’re here for you if you need anything’ and I thought ‘you guys are cool!’ One of the teachers asked me if I wanted to be their teachers aide and I was like ‘yeah!’ So I was her teacher’s aide and she was an English teacher so I decided I wanted to be an english teacher from then on. They made such an impact on me and I actually wrote a paper on it, my mom framed it of course, about how I wanted to become a teacher after these teachers took care of me. The teachers I had made such an impact on me.”
Mey Tuinei is a senior at Ketchikan High School and just like Alisa teachers have made a difference in her life.
“Growing up I’ve met a lot of teachers that have actually cared more than some other adults in my life,” said Tuinei. “They kinda push you to be a better person. There might not be an opening but I would definitely come back (to Ketchikan). Coming from Vegas to a small town didn’t really seem appealing and then I came here. Seeing kids not being exposed to drugs or violence or a bad environment was good. I love the small town mentality. Everyone here in the community come and support the kids. Ketchikan would be the perfect place to settle down and raise your kids.”