Clare Fonstein on a hike in Alaska

Swapping Spain to Study Alaska’s Public Schools: One Lehigh Student’s Experience with the Martindale Honors Program

Senior Clare Fonstein talks about spending two weeks in Alaska this past summer with a dozen classmates and faculty as part of the Martindale honors program.

Coming to Lehigh, I always planned to spend a semester abroad. I wanted to go to Spain and learn somewhere warm. I had it all planned out in my head and in my academic plans. Given what the recent years have looked like for travel, you may be able to guess that it did not end up happening. 

But my extra semester on campus gave me the chance to participate in Lehigh programs that stood out as a highlight of my four years, so while I was initially heartbroken, there were many opportunities right here in Bethlehem that I found fulfilling. 

Instead of Spain, I wound up in Alaska, as part of Lehigh’s Martindale Student Associates Honors program. 

This is an academic program for Lehigh students that involves traveling with the mission of completing a research paper for publication in a journal

Twelve students are chosen for the program, and once it begins you have dinners together and listen to lectures on the location of choice—in this case, Alaska. In a typical year, the location would be an international destination. In the past they have gone to Argentina, South Africa, Malaysia and more. In the semester leading up to our trip, I heard experts talk about all things Alaska, such as the economy, the oil industry and conservation efforts. There are many things that make Alaska completely different from the continental U.S. and interesting to learn about. 

In August, I left for Alaska, taking a bus from campus at 3 a.m. with other students and the faculty advisors in the program. For about two weeks we traveled the state hearing from speakers, seeing sights, asking questions… many questions, getting to know each other, and eating a lot of Alaska salmon. It was an amazing experience, and I have around 4,000 photos on my camera roll to prove it. I got to try things that I never would have on my own, such as touring a permafrost tunnel, swimming in hot springs or hiking in Denali National Park. I also got to spend time with many people I never got the chance to know at Lehigh. One of the cool aspects about the program is they take people from all majors and colleges, so I was learning with people studying chemical engineering, finance, theater, philosophy and more. On a regular basis at school, our paths would not typically cross, but I found myself spending every waking moment with them on our trip. Simply put, it was a lot of fun. As it goes with two weeks of travel, we all became very friendly, and I got to know the faculty on a better level as well. I remember touring colleges when I was in high school, always hearing people talk about great relationships between students and professors. Eating dinner with faculty members every week, I really got to experience it for myself, which has been very rewarding. It’s been a while since I have had to cook myself dinner on a Tuesday night—that is when we meet every week—dinner always provided! 

This semester, we are writing research papers based on what intrigued us on the trip. My topic is public K-12 education in Alaska. The remote nature of the state and large native population in schools makes it an interesting topic that has much to unpack. 

I cannot speak to what I would have gotten out of an abroad experience, but had I been in Barcelona I would have never gotten the chance to meet all of these people and be part of this amazing program. This is one of those things unique to Lehigh, and I feel very fortunate to be part of. It is hands-down one of the highlights of my Lehigh experience that has been very rewarding personally and academically.