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Don’t kiss any polar bears

As March cruises past us and April quickly approaches I can no longer pretend this isn’t happening: I have less than five months left at KNOM.

It still hasn’t completely sunk in but reality is approaching hard and fast, much like this year’s Iditarod trail, and my successor could very well be hidden in a pile of applications. Or you could be reading this right now. Yes, you. This post is meant for you, future volunteer.

Two years ago I was like you and the volunteer blog had just launched. No, seriously. Think about it: when I applied to KNOM, this blog didn’t exist. And for volunteers before me, there was no website. There was no Internet. But that never stopped anyone from tracking their way up to Nome to work in a field they knew nothing about with a group of strangers from different backgrounds and geographic locations. How did they know that everything would be okay? How did they know what they were getting into? Or, as one of my siblings once put it, how did they know this wouldn’t turn into a “Shining” scenario where everyone dies? (My family is a little dramatic. Spoiler alert: I’m alive. We’re all alive.)

They didn’t know. But it turned out okay. More than okay.



I think a large chunk of us were driven here by intuition and the desire to do something meaningful with our lives. I know I was. Anna Rose and I say it all the time, we shout it at random intervals walking up and down the stairs of the volunteer house, “I want to do great things!” but you can’t pull greatness out of thin air, and that’s where KNOM comes in. KNOM has been built piece by piece for over 40 years by many people. Being offered a position as a radio volunteer gives you the opportunity to contribute a little bit more to something that is much greater than yourself.

Did I wish I had asked a few more questions before doing this? Yes. Do I regret not doing so? No. I dove-head first into this adventure and came out in one piece. It has been a thrilling experience and I wouldn’t change it for the world. But maybe you’re not like me. Maybe you want to ask more questions; maybe you want more advice than “don’t kiss any polar bears,” which is the only advice I ever got (thanks, Sara). So, future volunteer. Here’s a little bit of what I could scrape up late last night. Helpful things to remember for your future as a volunteer. Take it to heart. Don’t take it to heart. You’re an adult; you do what you want right, right?

1. Don’t sugarcoat who you are.

It’s easy to fall into the “I just want everyone to like me” trap when you are new in town and want to make a good first impression. We all want to be liked, but pretending to be anyone other than who you are is a disservice to yourself and others. The more authentic you are, the more authentic your relationships will be. If you’re not honest about yourself, your needs, or your expectations, it has the potential to be a huge mess. I’m not telling you to be a jerk or highlight your negative qualities. Just… relax. And be you. Every educational program you watched ages 3-10 told you to. Even Mr. Rogers, and who doesn’t trust Mr. Rogers?

The only exception to the sugar coat rule is if you are a unicorn. In that case you’re allowed to smother yourself in sugary, rainbow-y goodness.

2. Apologize for your mistakes (not for who you are)

Follow up to the above. If you make mistakes—and this is live radio so you will make your share, trust me—own up to them. Apologize for what you did, fix what you can, and move on. Don’t make it a personal thing by internalizing whatever you did wrong. If you’re constantly down on yourself, you are going to have a very exhausting year.

Being down on yourself brings a flow of bad energy. You want good energy, especially in an environment where you’ll be living and working with the same individuals day in and day out and the energy between all of you is constantly fluttering from one space to another. You won’t always feel the best but don’t embrace the negative.

3. Long distance relationships…

If you want to stay in touch with your family, friends, maybe other significant others, you are going to have to work A LOT on long distance relationships. There will be phone calls, texts, emails, care packages, postcards, sometimes, Skype (which you will have to arrange around the other volunteers) and math— that 6am Sunday phone call from your parents will be infuriating to everyone in the house until they figure out you’re four hours behind them. And you will have to balance those relationships with the people you actually see on a day-by-day basis. Maybe you already do this. If you don’t, you’re going to have to learn, and learning to find that balance will suck (until you get better at it).

4. Do something other than work.

This sounds like an obvious one but the reason everyone will reiterate this is because you will live right across from the station and it’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of going to work and coming home and doing nothing else every day. Your job will be pretty interesting and awesome, a lot of work, but very rewarding, and sometimes you might convince yourself that staying late to finish that story is like a hobby because you enjoy what you do. But working is not a hobby. Work is work. There are plenty of things to do in Nome and friendly people willing to teach you new, cool stuff, so go ahead and try new things until you find your niche.

Tara and I love work but even we know when to call it quits and take short naps (roughly around 4am, Iditarod time)

5. If you expect the worst in people, they will show you their worst.

This is actually advice we volunteers got from Laura early last year about communal living. Most people tend to think those around them are never doing enough, while we overestimate how much we do. It’s best not to make assumptions, but if you must, assume everyone is doing more than their share. In return, do more than your share. If everyone does more than their share, on average, you’ll at least meet each other half way, even when you slack off.

6. “Adventure” comes in all shapes and sizes.

I can tell you right now that I’ve been on a roller coaster of adventures since I arrived and most are not what I originally had in mind. Some are adventures you take with the people around you, others you take by yourself. I dug a truck out of a mud ditch with my wits and a shovel. I snow shoed across the tundra in the mist of a blizzard. I’ve hiked, mushed, danced, sung, played for crowds, and traveled to communities along the Alaskan coast, but my most surprising adventures were internal and intensely personal. It was difficult; occasionally heart wrenching, and I’ve grown in ways I cannot begin to explain. So when you say “I want to go on an adventure!” think carefully about what you’re asking for and what you might be getting into.

I hope this was helpful.

If I made you more anxious, sorry about that. Think of puppies and count to ten. I hear that works sometimes. (Or was that hiccups?) When you are in a confusing place and you are scared but excited and worried and scattered and the world makes sense but no sense, just remember, always remember the most sacred of all advice: don’t kiss any polar bears. There are no polar bears in Nome– except for that one time everyone will tell you about– but this sounds like sound advice. So just don’t do it.

1 Comment

  1. Ron on March 27, 2014 at 1:27 am

    Good advice from one now seasoned in the Alaskan Mission. God bless your youth and energy and your calling. “Great things” are realized in ways that you cannot see and perhaps not even recognize. You leave that to God and others.