A group of dog sled students changed my world

Annika Olesen, who never intended to pursue University, will be graduating from Augustana this Sunday.

Tia Lalani - 01 June 2018

Annika, pictured here with her sister Liv.

Growing up, Annika Olesen never planned to attend University. Surrounded by river, lichen, spruce trees and sand, her childhood was made up of homeschooling and as much time as possible spent outdoors on her parents' homestead near the Hoarfrost River in the Northwest Territories. A box of a dorm room, stifling classes and a ten-step trek to the cafeteria-compared to the hour and a half by bush plane journey from home to the nearest road back at the Hoarfrost-was not her idea of a worthy experience. But an introduction to Augustana through the campus' dogsledding course that took place on her parents' property changed everything.

Now, armed with a liberal arts degree, inimitable experience, a passion to follow and a prestigious award, Annika is grateful for the time spent on a path she never intended to pursue.

Fellow Augustana alumna Emily McIlroy (left) on a fishing trip with Annika.

"My liberal arts education has combined with my own upbringing to reinforce an identity rooted in a beloved homeplace," Annika writes in an essay recounting her experience at Augustana, which won her the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges David J Prior Award. In her essay, she reflects on coming to Augustana with a lack of critical thinking skills and a desire to finish schooling quickly before returning home.

Four successful years later, Annika will graduate from Augustana with a Global and Development Studies (GDS) degree, an irony that is not lost on her, coming from a very small and somewhat isolated place. Both humble and insightful, Annika explains that having a degree was never very important to her-it was the experience that mattered.

"I think my GDS degree happened because I didn't want to be trapped, I wanted to have the most options possible in terms of the classes I was taking," Annika remembers. Her rare take on a degree as more of a by-product of attending University rather than the actual goal fit well with a liberal arts and sciences campus. "I've taken so many cool courses over my degree-Norwegian, creative writing, music theory, history-I've been able to follow a lot of different passions and areas of interest. Even though I chose not to pursue all of them, I now have a lot of respect for the people who do. And I think that's the beauty of a liberal arts degree."

Aside from her classwork, Annika was a member of the cross-country running and skiing teams-because she "needed to figure out a way to get outside!". She was also a student chaplain and participated in the Augustana Choir and annual Spirit of the Land conference where she formed some of her closest friendships. "I now have so many connections to the Camrose community, which has been a really important part of my time here," Annika says. "And not just with my peers, but with people of different age groups, my professors and community members."

Photos courtesy of Kristen Olesen.

Looking forward, Annika hopes to work outdoors with at-risk populations based out of the Hoarfrost and the surrounding area. She will begin this goal with a summer job at Spirit North, an organization that engages youth in Indigenous and reserve communities in cross-country running and skiing. "I think there's a huge need in the North for 'wilderness therapy' or positive connections to place and an active lifestyle," Annika says. "That's something I'm really passionate about and I think there's a lot of ways I can make that work in the Northwest Territories."

Although Annika plans to go back to the Hoarfrost eventually, she's glad for the time she's spent at Augustana as well.

"I've come to realize that I can find a sense of home in many different places."

Annika will be graduating this Sunday with a Bachelor of Arts in Global and Development Studies.