Parents, teachers and counselors always tell teenagers: “Don’t worry. There’s a college for everyone. You’ll do fine.”
It’s true. Just ask Michael Martins.
You can find him at the University of Alaska.
At Staples High School, he served on the WWPT-FM board. For his Eagle Scout project he worked with alumni, bands and DJs to make the radio station’s 40th anniversary fundraiser a success.
But during his college search — ranging from upstate New York to the far west — there was no place he truly wanted to go.
“I love learning,” Michael says. ” I wanted to do college the right way.”
He’d never been to Alaska. He knew no one in the entire vast state. It was isolated, different and a challenge. Michael liked that.
The nation’s “northernmost land, sea and space grant university and international research center” is a global leader in studying climate change. Michael could use his math skills in Arctic research — in the Arctic itself.
And because his mother is a veteran, tuition in that military-friendly state is less than what he’d pay at the University of Connecticut, Michael says.
He’d seen photos of UAF online. But when he stepped off the plane, it finally hit him. “I’m in Alaska!” Michael thought.
Friends and family members have many misperceptions. They picture tundra and igloos. They ask if he has Wi-Fi.
Sure, the temperature reaches 40 below. But in many ways, UAF is a normal college campus.
It has normal college problems. Like not enough pianos.
Michael has played for 3 years. He doesn’t take music courses — he’s a math major, and French minor — so he couldn’t just play whenever he wanted to.
He picked his residence — Bartlett Hall — because it was the only one with a piano. But the instrument was in an out-of-the-way place, and not well tuned.
So one of the first things Michael did after arriving was organize a piano fundraiser. He brought the piano into a common area. He asked musicians to play for an hour each night — with a tip jar. He set up online donations too.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner picked up the story. Immediately, 6 people in Fairbanks — a city of 32,000 — called to donate pianos to residence halls.
The goal was $300. Michael raised twice that amount. The extra funds will go toward appraising, tuning and transporting the pianos.
But that’s not the only way Michael has reached out to others. For spring break he decided to help people he didn’t know, in (another) place he didn’t know.
So he spent a week in Houston, helping victims of Hurricane Harvey rebuild their lives. It was far from Alaska — and far from the wild spring break experiences of some college students.
Michael loved Houston. He was also glad to get back to Fairbanks.
“I’m thriving here,” he reports. “There’s a great attitude of ‘let’s make it happen.’ And tons of support.”
He calls himself lucky: to have gone to Staples, to have had the idea to apply to the University of Alaska, and now to go there. “I love where I am,” he says.
He has a message to Staples students: “There are a lot of places where you can feel important, and make a difference.”
It’s something parents, teachers and counselors say all the time here to teenagers.
Perhaps it will have impact coming from someone else who knows Westport well, now thriving thousands of miles away.