Making the Magis Happen in the Alaskan Wilderness

Alumni Profile: Katie Henderson '17

Katie Henderson ’17, MA’18

Making the Magis Happen in the Alaskan Wilderness

We are in a very rural location that does not have any roads or cars, and the houses for all 300 residents are connected by boardwalks because the tundra that surrounds us is spongy and waterlogged.

— Katie Henderson ’17, MA’18

some people are drawn to a life of travel by sheer wanderlust. But Katie Henderson ’17 MA’18 has always been on the move. Born in Florida, Henderson’s Air Force military family moved throughout the United States during her childhood — not to mention stops in Okinawa, Japan; Rome, Italy; Ramstein, Germany; and Brussels, Belgium.

After Henderson’s family settled in Colorado, a new adventure came on the horizon for Katie alone: Fairfield University. As a first-year student in 2013, Henderson jumped at the chance to get involved on campus, serving as a New Student Leader (NSL), joining the History Club, and earning membership to several academic honor societies. Each of these ties strengthened her already apparent desire to be a teacher.

“Being an NSL made me much more con- fident in my own abilities, and more outgo- ing in my actions. I also learned that I really enjoyed mentoring students and forming relationships with them, based on common experiences and challenges,” she said.

Henderson completed her BA in history in 2017 with minors in American studies and education, and her MA in education with a social studies concentration in 2018. After finishing her master’s degree, Henderson landed job at a high school in Ridgefield, Conn., where she taught freshman and sophomore world history, as well as a psychology elective class.

“I was happy with the academic rigor and high levels achieved by my students in Connecticut,” said Henderson, “but I felt that I could make an even bigger difference in my own life as well as the lives of my students.”

Henderson found that chance at a job fair for teachers, upon striking up a conversation with a recruiter from Alaska. “I became really fascinated with the idea of working with Alaska native students in a completely different environment and lifestyle. I went home and spent all weekend looking up the school district and other information, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I could find a lot of depth, meaning, and purpose if I taught there,” she said.

So Henderson left Ridgefield and moved to Atmautluak, Alaska to teach at Joann A. Alexie Memorial School in the heart of a rural Yup’ik Eskimo village. At the Pre-K through grade 12 school in an area with a population of about 300 residents, Henderson has thrown herself into her new community and has the responsibilities to match. She not only serves as a secondary English teacher for grades 6-12, but also the school’s art liaison, providing professional development in ways for teachers to integrate art into their curricula. She has even coached cross country and served as the assistant coach for the school’s basketball program, in her spare time. 

In addition to her newfound duties, there has been much to adjust to, said Henderson — for starters, Atmautluak itself.

“We are in a very rural location that does not have any roads or cars, and the houses for all 300 residents are connected by board- walks because the tundra that surrounds us is spongy and waterlogged,” she explained. “The one store we have does not have pro- duce or fresh foods available, and families rely on subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering for their own survival and the survival of their traditional Yup’ik culture.”

Another challenge she faces is working with students who primarily speak the Yugtun language, which is native to the Yup’ik culture.

“Many of my students struggle greatly with English because they only speak Yugtun at home, and even my high schoolers are at an elementary-grade reading level even though they are required to use grade-level curricu- lum materials,” she said. “As a social studies teacher who was hired as an English teacher, this has made my job especially challenging.”

Yet, with the challenges come the rewards, of which Henderson said there are plenty.

“I am learning so much about another culture and way of life, and I am much closer to my students and can form real connections with them and other community members. I am really enjoying learning as much as my students about their Yup’ik traditions and way of life.”

Henderson may have her eye on yet another move in the future, perhaps to return to her roots and teach internationally in a military school. No matter what lies ahead, she said that her Fairfield experience has prepared her well.

“Because of my military background, I have always been flexible and resilient, but at Fairfield my approach to obstacles also grew out of my passion to succeed and to learn,” she said. “I do feel that I am carrying on the Jesuit values as a teacher. The magis is my personal favorite, and the source of my own drive to be the best I can be and more in everything I do. Here in Alaska, I am much more than just an English teacher, and that has been really satisfying.”

Other Articles in the Spring 2020 Issue

Innovation And Inspiration

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Alumni Profile: Christopher Pilkerton ’95

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Growing Faith

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Spike in the Right Direction

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Sparks of Hope

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Play It Loud

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Letter from the President

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