By Jeff Richardson
When Kristy Jones-Robbins and Zach Sanders receive their master’s degrees from the University of Alaska Fairbanks on Saturday, the Eagle Community School teachers will have quite the cheering section: Nearly half of their hometown will be there to see it happen.
Jones-Robbins and Sanders, who represent two-thirds of the teaching staff in Eagle, are bringing their students to Fairbanks this year for their spring field trip. Twenty-one students, joined by 10 adult chaperones, will watch them accept their new diplomas at the Carlson Center.
For Jones-Robbins and Sanders, it’s more than just a chance to bring a familiar audience to the commencement ceremony. They both earned their UAF degrees by taking online courses while remaining in Eagle. It’s a realistic path to higher education for rural Alaskans who don’t want to leave home, and they’re happy to serve as models.
“We wanted to be an example to our students,” Jones-Robbins said. “Sometimes they can’t visualize it until they see it happen.”
Both Jones-Robbins and Sanders pursued their UAF education degrees to fill gaps at Eagle Community School. They’ll be the only two teachers when the school loses a position next year.
Sanders, who was working as a special education aide, stepped in to a teaching role two years ago when a job suddenly opened. He was hired through the state’s Teaching While Training program, which allows someone with a bachelor’s degree to teach while they pursue their certificate.
Jones-Robbins has had her teaching certificate for the past 24 years. She moved from Georgia to Eagle in 2013 to become the principal-teacher. She began pursuing a special-education degree three years ago after the Alaska Gateway School District offered to pay for her classes to address the hard-to-fill position.
Although it was a slow process, both Sanders and Jones-Robbins said the convenience of online classes and support they received along their journeys has been worth it.
“It’s been a long road, but a really great experience,” Jones-Robbins said. “It’s been a good, quality education.”
Picking up those diplomas will be a highlight of the trip to Fairbanks, but it won’t be the only one. Jones-Robbins said the school typically has a field trip each fall and spring, packing up students from preschool to high school. This year’s trip also will include a visit to the UA Museum of the North, a much-anticipated stop to the CRREL Permafrost Tunnel, and a UAF tour for the high schoolers. The field trip will conclude with a day at Denali National Park and Preserve.
Many Eagle families visit Fairbanks to stock up on groceries and other supplies, but a more leisurely visit will be a first for many students, Jones-Robbins said.
“It’s usually a mad-dash shopping trip — they don’t get a chance to go to the museum or even walk around UAF,” Sanders said. “They’re going to be doing things that we take for granted.”