Cotton in Bethel Alaska
Christine's daughter picks cotton that grew in their backyard in Bethel, Alaska.
by Christine Lucio, MSW, LCSW
In 2013, my husband and I faced some difficult choices. He was separating from the military, and soon we’d have no income or housing. We were panicked. I was a recent grad, but with the economy, I was having no luck finding employment. No one wanted a new grad with no experience, and if they did, they weren’t paying. I had applied to around 400 jobs, and some weren’t even related to social work. I had a few interviews, but no one was offering me a position. We had two small children, crippling loan debt, and were facing homelessness. We were getting desperate and feeling hopeless, and that’s when I got that call that would change my life in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine.
A young recruiter contacted me and asked if I was interested in the social work position she had available. I hadn’t heard of the hospital or location but said I was interested, because what else did I have? She scheduled an interview and then told me about the salary and benefits. I was pacing my room, heart racing and hands shaking. No one had ever offered me that much money before. I went from total despair to instant elation. I had my second interview, Googled as much as I could about a place called “Bethel, Alaska,” and before I knew it, there we were living in Alaska. Those first months were surreal.
You may think that, given our circumstances, they didn’t have to offer us much to get us on that plane. I mean, really, what other choice did we have? Well, oddly enough, I was offered another position in the Lower 48 (contiguous United States) that same week, but I took the job in Bethel instead. We ended up with choices but picked Alaska because it made the most sense based on our goals.
What was so appealing about Alaska, and why would I want other new social workers to do what I did? What are the benefits and challenges? Would we go back?
Financial Benefits and Challenges
The salary and benefits packages are hands down some of the best. In addition to making about $20,000 more than I had ever made per year, I was also offered a retention bonus. Often, hard-to-fill positions within Alaska offer a sign-on and/or a retention bonus, and these can be up to $5,000 or more. My benefits package included airfare for myself and my family, as well as relocation assistance for household goods. Many rural organizations understand that moving is a huge financial burden and, without assistance, many potential employees simply can’t afford to move. Keep in mind that if you take some of the benefits offered, they come with a service obligation.
Education while in Alaska was a huge financial incentive I received. I was authorized a yearly conference trip that was completely paid for by my corporation. They also reimbursed me for my continuing education and license fees. The biggest educational benefit I received, though, was my student loan repayment. This was around $20,000 per year, and as most of you know, that’s huge. Please note that the individual organizations often do not offer this directly, but instead it’s offered through federal or state programs. Please review the programs carefully, as they all come with contractual obligations.
There were many financial incentives to living in rural Alaska. However, I should mention it isn’t free from financial challenges. Almost everything is more expensive in Alaska, and living in the bush costs even more. You have to remember that with no road system, gas and groceries are either being flown or barged in, and neither is cheap. I’d say you should anticipate gas and groceries to be double the price of whatever you currently pay. Fortunately, there are now things like Amazon Pantry to offset some of those costs.
Housing and utilities are more expensive, as well, but some corporations have their own housing that can be at a reduced price or can even be part of your benefits package.
The best financial advice I can give is that before you move to Alaska, have money saved and do your research regarding the cost of living. There are lots of calculators out there that should be able to help you. They won’t have the rural locations but will have the major cities, and those can give you a rough estimate for cost of living. Just remember that rural locations will almost always be more expensive, so you should anticipate paying slightly more.
Professional and Community Benefits and Challenges
The professional and community benefits and challenges, to me, are one in the same. Learning about my community through school activities with my children, church activities with my friends, or professional opportunities with my colleagues taught me about my clients and the community, which made me a more culturally competent community member and clinician.
The professional and personal education and experiences I received while living and working in Bethel are big parts of what have molded me into the clinician and person I am now. I don’t take the same things for granted that I did before residing in Bethel. Personally that meant things like food, water, and plumbing. Professionally, the ability to refer clients to resources is something that still often amazes me, just because there are such limited resources in Alaska.
Would I Go Back?
The knowledge and experience I gained while in Bethel is something that will forever tie me to the region, but it’s also part of why I left. The realities of Bush Alaska are harsh. Alaska is known for high rates of sexual assault, child abuse, suicide, domestic violence, alcoholism, and substance abuse. Each of these realities presents its own set of challenges, and when you start combining these societal issues with staffing and management issues, it can become overwhelming. When self-care also becomes limited, it can really take its toll. I had a solid support group, but once my husband was stationed in Texas, I felt I had no other choice but to leave. Our family being together was ultimately more important to me than my career goals in Alaska. I would absolutely go back to Alaska if given the chance, and I think anyone who is given the opportunity to do what I did should strongly consider the option. If you have an adventurous spirit, enjoy challenges, and like extreme learning opportunities, it can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Demer, L. (2015, December 5). In rural Alaska, a new approach to fighting suicide emerges. Alaska Dispatch News. Retrieved from http://www.adn.com/article/20151205/rural-alaska-new-approach-fighting-suicide-emerges
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Mayotte, B. (2016, May 4). 4 states that offer generous student loan forgiveness programs. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/student-loan-ranger/articles/2016-05-04/4-states-that-offer-generous-student-loan-forgiveness-programs
National Association of Social Workers. (2010). Summary of key compensation findings. [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://www.naswdc.org/pressroom/2010/salarystudy2010.pdf
Peters, M. (n.d.). Sexual assault response team. Retrieved from http://www.dps.state.ak.us/pio/troopertimes/archivestories/sartinbethel100509.pdf
Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. (2010). Careers with YKHC- Begin your journey. Retrieved from http://ykhcjobs.org/index.php
Christine Lucio, MSW, LCSW, lived and practiced in rural Alaska for 2½ years as a medical social worker and later as a behavioral health clinician. She now lives in rural west Texas and works as a therapist on a military installation.