Alaska Intern Has Plane, Will Travel

March 12, 2012
by Eric Lindberg
MSW@USC student Jennifer Williams in a float plane on her way to her field internship

Most students enrolled in the web-based master’s program at the USC School of Social Work either drive or take public transportation to their field placements.

Jennifer Williams takes a float plane.

The 29-year-old lives on the Alaskan island of Kodiak with her husband, a helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard. The remote destination, located roughly 250 miles to the southwest of Anchorage in the Gulf of Alaska, can only be reached by plane or ferry. Most residents carry guns to ward off hungry wildlife.

“You definitely get cabin fever, or I guess I should say island fever, living here,” Williams said by phone from the city of Kodiak, the island’s largest community with approximately 10,000 residents.

When she moved to the island a year and a half ago, Williams was unsure how she would pursue her goal of earning a master’s degree in social work. She had studied pre-law and political science at Michigan State University and worked in the court system in Florida and Alaska, but became discouraged with its one-size-fits-all approach to social services. After reviewing a few other options, she settled on USC’s Virtual Academic Center (VAC).

“USC seemed to be the best fit,” she said. “I really liked that they had a military sub-concentration since my husband is active duty.”

But she had serious concerns about field work. Despite living on the largest Coast Guard base in the country, Williams was worried the air station didn’t have enough personnel to meet the school’s requirements for a placement. Then she discovered the Kodiak Area Native Association, a nonprofit corporation that provides health and social services to Alaska natives in Kodiak and six villages.

As an intern working with the association’s psychologist, Williams is helping run an afterschool program for at-risk youth, meeting with pregnant women to offer counseling and discuss postpartum depression, and traveling to remote villages to conduct home visits.

“It’s not something I thought I would ever do, but it really is a wonderful group to work with, and I really enjoy the experience,” she said. “It’s very humbling.”

The issues facing natives on the island are daunting. Depression, substance use and other forms of trauma such as sexual abuse, domestic violence and incest are not uncommon in the small, relatively isolated villages of the Alutiiq people.

During recent counseling sessions, Williams has helped native elders navigate the often labyrinthine process of applying for social security and disability benefits, as well as other services. Many of her clients have spent their lives working as commercial fisherman and don’t have much experience dealing with forms and bureaucratic jargon.

“They are given a lot of services, but many of them just don’t know how to utilize those services,” she said.

Williams also is working with a small group of native children who have risk factors for delinquency, substance use and other unhealthy behaviors. Through an afterschool program, she is building relationships and working with youth to set positive goals.

Group discussions and activities provide a forum for the children to discuss issues they are facing and receive validation.

Although Williams had been worried about being seen as an outsider, she said the group has welcomed her presence.

“They’ve been really receptive to me,” she said, adding that several students told her they appreciate her positive attitude and nonjudgmental approach.

In addition to her interest in social work policy, she said she has enjoyed VAC classes that focus on practice with individuals and is looking forward to working one-on-one with clients through the native association.

“It’s very satisfying to help empower people, to give them that hope at the end of the day, especially for some of my older clients who come in so frustrated and so upset but leave with a sense of relief or hope or completion,” she said. “It’s very self-gratifying that I was able to make their day a little bit better.”

When weather allows, Williams will travel by float plane to outlying villages—typically consisting of 50 to 200 residents each—to meet with natives and conduct home visits with those requiring assistance or referrals for services.

Climate is an ever-present factor, she said, noting that a recent planned trip to a village had to be canceled due to a major storm in northern Alaska that brought heavy snowfall to the island.

When she does travel to a village, she will bring a sleeping bag and a change of clothes, in the event she is stuck overnight due to inclement weather.

It has been a significant transition from Florida, where she lived with her husband prior to his transfer to Kodiak. Grocery stores on the island get weekly shipments via barge, and it’s not uncommon for those shipments to be delayed or canceled, leaving residents without fresh fruit or produce for lengthy periods of time.

“Here you have to be much more careful,” Williams said. “If there is bad weather, which there is all the time, the barge is not going to come in that day. You really have to plan ahead.”

Although her husband gets to leave the island frequently due to his Coast Guard duties, Williams rarely makes it to the mainland more than once every six months.

She expects to remain in Alaska for another year and should be able to finish her master’s degree before her husband is transferred. She is entering her third semester as a part-time student in the VAC and is focusing her studies on mental health with a military sub-concentration.

She hopes to eventually work as a licensed clinical social worker with military or veteran populations on issues related to trauma.

Williams in Alaska