Valerie Pokorny and her friends were on a midnight walk. They quietly crept through the trees, keeping their eyes fixed on the Alaskan night sky. They had received an app alert that it would be a good night to see the northern lights.
She was in a place quite unlike Indianapolis—and that was just what she had been looking for.
“I wanted to go somewhere very different,” she explains. “The United States is huge and has so much to offer—why not look here?”
Pokorny, an O’Neill Sustainable Management and Policy major, was spending her spring 2021 semester at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau thanks to IUPUI’s National Student Exchange program.
They’re called “study away” programs—a more domestic version of study abroad opportunities—and they allow IUPUI undergraduates to spend a semester or academic year at one of its partner schools around the country, in U.S. territories, and in Canada.
“I knew I didn’t want to stay continental,” Pokorny says. So, she picked three destinations: Hawaii, Alaska, and Calgary, Canada. When the applications came back, she had been accepted to the University of Alaska in Anchorage.
She started working with NSE in 2019, hoping to study at a partner university in fall 2020. But those plans were soon thrown out when COVID-19 hit the United States.
“As things progressed, I decided to push it to spring 2021,” she says. “I just cancelled the trip to see how it would go.”
The Anchorage campus, like so many other universities, had cancelled all exchange programs. However, two of its other campuses were open. At the last minute, she switched gears and traveled to Juneau instead.
“I had a month to prepare for everything,” she recalls, laughing. “It was a little scary, but I felt that if I didn’t do it now, I would regret it.”
Despite being on a different campus, students pay IUPUI tuition and fees, which means they can retain their scholarships. That financial aspect was very appealing to Pokorny, as was the opportunity to take courses that weren’t available at IUPUI.
“You can really diversify your academics,” she says. “My goal was to have every course I took on exchange count for something at IUPUI.”
And most did. She was able to get credit for courses she never would’ve been able to take in the Midwest, things like marine ornithology.
“These courses opened my eyes to interesting fields I didn’t know about before,” Pokorny says. “They all touched on the fact that our world is changing, and the changes are all interrelated. They reinforced my interest in sustainability and that our society needs to change quickly or suffer more consequences.”
Even outside of courses focused on sustainability, her new location meant new experiences. She says, on a whim, she enrolled in a course that didn’t count as credit at IUPUI but also didn’t cost her anything: sea kayaking. After two in-person classes, she headed out to sea on her kayak for her final exam.
“I never would’ve done that if not for being here in Alaska,” she says.
The same is true for seeking out the northern lights, exploring coastal tide pools, doing a true polar plunge, and even hiking onto a glacier.
“The Mendenhall Glacier is in Juneau and was a 10-minute drive from campus,” Pokorny recalls. “We went when the lake was just starting to freeze over. When it got really cold, we went back and were able to walk across the lake and go up to the glacier and explore ice caves.”
That wasn’t the only natural beauty near her new campus. The university is nestled right next to another lake with just one main road going through the middle of campus. Walking from one end of campus to the other? A three- to five-minute walk, she estimated.
“Everything was so open and natural,” she says. “The overall vibe was completely different than at IUPUI.”
She says that’s what makes the program so unique—and why she encourages students to take advantage of the opportunity for their academic education and their life education.
“Only good things can come out of this,” she says. “It was very self-validating. I realized I can pack up and go somewhere and it’s okay—I’m capable of that. It boosts your confidence to know you’ll be okay no matter where life takes you. Everyone needs to do that.”
Students wishing to enroll in the program for fall 2022 or later, contact Asha McCauley at NSE. Applications will be due by February 15, 2022.