Bialek:The value of experience

My college experience started and ended at the University of New Mexico. It was a great school and it was really affordable in the 90’s. My goal was to become a high school English and Drama teacher.  Ah, those best laid plans…  I remember being in a big lecture hall thinking “I am sitting here, listening to this man spout out and making me memorize things from a book written by a different man whose experiences may or may not have anything to do with my life.”  as I started to doze off.

Needless to say, I didn’t last very long in college.  I was a person who had to go out and experience life on my own.  My path was leading in the direction of working with people and what better way to do that than to travel?  My friends and I made it a point to day trip whenever we could and as the opportunities arose, we adventured farther and farther.

When I turned 21, three of my girlfriends and I took the summer off and drove my Honda civic hatchback to Alaska.  We weren’t quite sure what we would do when we got there, but we recognized at some level that our best chance to learn and experience was right then and there.  Fear of the unknown was not allowed to be a factor.

After a long and storied journey, we found jobs at a Salmon processing plant, living in a tent city on the Kenai peninsula (really just a bunch of tarps shantied together in the factory’s parking lot). Our duties included fish cavity scraping, egg sack redistribution and quality control.  The smell of salmon belly rot will forever be burned into my brain.  We were constantly smelly and dirty and we worked 12-14 hours a day.  But the sun was always up and we were young.

That summer led me on a new path.  I began to realize how to communicate with people on a new level.  We worked with a couple from Russia, native Alaskan Eskimos (no igloos and it was warm, so no fur lined parkas), a group of 4 deaf college boys travelling together, as well as gang members from L.A. trying to put their past lives behind them.  Out of sheer circumstance, our social constructs fell away making room for familial cooperation, and we worked together to get the job done.

I realize that there are many professions which require extensive book learning and collegiate certifications.  I do not recommend learning mechanical engineering by jumping into a helicopter, tearing it apart and piecing it back together.  But there are certain aspects of any profession which cannot be conveyed in a lecture hall.  What that summer taught me is that I can make a family out of any group of people.  I am able to find a common ground with anyone with whom I strike a conversation and build from there.  This skill has proven to be invaluable to me both in my personal life as well as in the profession which chose me.