Anneke Fleming Interview

nterviewee: Meghan O’Leary

Place: Kenai Fjords Boat Tour (The Alaskan Explorer)

Meghan O’Leary is a woman that I met with a typical name in an unlikely place. Seward, Alaska has been home to this brilliant woman for nearly the entirety of her twenty three years. It was while surrounded by Seward’s rugged landscape, unpredictable weather and extraordinary wildlife that Meghan O’Leary was able to develop the majority of the opinions that she shared with me today. However, according to her, the pivotal moment in her life occurred the one time she moved away to Fairbanks, Alaska, (a destination of ours earlier along in the trip) to attend college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Meghan earned her degree in Biology, but it was the class she took to meet the English requirement that changed her perception of the world.
“I took a random gender studies class, which ended up opening my eyes to different types of people. It was more than a gender studies class, there was way more to it than just, like, feminism and male dominated societies. I learned a lot of acceptance. Acceptance of myself kind of came along with accepting other people for who they are. You can’t change people, you can only change yourself… In high school you have the jocks, and the cheerleaders, and the nerds, and the people that keep to themselves, and the gothic ones. There is a variety of people that can all fall under some sort of label. But they shouldn’t. Because they are all people. We all have the same goals. We want to be happy, that doesn’t change. So trying to alienate people because they are different does not make the world a better place.”
She applied what she learned in this class to her own life as well. This knowledge of acceptance helped Meghan realize that the relationship she was in at the time was not going to work out.
“He wasn’t going to change, and I wanted him to. It was unfair to him, and it was unfair to me. I was okay with that, but at first it was difficult to accept.”
Her studies also applied to her life after growing up in Seward. The tightly knit community of just 3,500 was described by Meghan as having a monoculture. Specifically in her graduating class of 50, there was no one significantly different from the rest. Fairbanks is fabricated of a very diverse population, which Meghan learned to love and appreciate because of the mentioned gender studies class. The one thing she had to really teach herself to accept was her inability to change other people.
She is proud to always have been good to herself. When she moved away to college, Meghan was quick to learn that she had to go to bed and cook and clean for her own wellbeing. It was difficult to be studying and learning to survive simultaneously. Luckily she figured this out quickly and was aided by her best friend who came to UAF with her. Again, in her gender studies class she learned even more about being good to herself:
“Acceptance of myself just kind of came along with accepting other people for who they are…It is important to always try to improve your character, but people have to learn to live with all the little things that they can’t do anything about. People have to accept their families, where they come from, situations they can do little to change. Another big one we discussed in class was body image. You want to be healthy, but there are social expectations and norms that really aren’t. There is no such thing as a normal body type.”
Throughout high school as well, Meghan worked hard for her own benefit — she entirely paid her own way through college with no help, something which she attributes to smart decisions, determination and lifeguarding. She knows that she will be returning to school for her master’s degree in the future, however she relayed this plan to me with an interesting sentiment: “I’m just not quite ready yet.”
The reason why might seem obvious to any of us spending a day aboard THE ALASKAN EXPLORER that Meghan is a deckhand on, surrounded by waters rich in whales, porpoises, Orcas, sea lions, seals and sea otters. Her current job had little to do with her reasoning. Instead her future job affected the decision.
Nowhere she has ever traveled compared to the beauty Meghan greets daily at home in Alaska, although she appreciates the change in scenery. For other reasons as well, such as the influx of people she enjoys as a benefit (or downside to) the tourism-based economy of Seward, and accordingly the diverse community she has built for herself here, Meghan wants to give back to the place she has always known to be home.
She is willing to move “for a time, just to get some experience elsewhere,” but so far, nowhere else feels like home. Meghan hopes to give back by becoming a science teacher at the local middle or high school. Currently Meghan does not feel that she has enough life experience to teach students about all aspects of life that she hopes to, and to be a role model. For this reason Meghan is waiting to get her master’s degree. She hopes that by teaching she can fulfill her obligation not only to give back to her community, but to contribute to the world as a whole.
“I want to become a teacher, and part of that is influencing future generations. I want to educate the youth so that they can become the electrical engineers that build the solar and the tidal and the wind power for our planet. I can’t do everything myself and I feel like the best way to influence the future is by becoming a teacher. Make a difference by helping them make a difference.”
One issue that Meghan hopes to educate people about and accordingly help solve is Climate Change, which has a drastic visible affect on Seward. In her lifetime Meghan has recognized the rapidly declining amounts of snow in the wintertime, now being replaced by rain. The ground is drier and less fertile, and so much more prone to the forest fires which have become common in the area. Exit glacier recedes dramatically year by year, now at a faster and faster rate. Animals rely on the unique habitat that the disappearing glaciers provide. Certain birds flourish in the cold environment and Black Bears graze in specific surrounding areas of land. Seals haul out on the ice that breaks off of glaciers to give birth to their pups. If the glacier continue to recede at this rate and disappear, all of the animals dependent on the ecosystem will either move or die off. And a species can’t run from a worldwide issue.
Meghan supports alternative energy exploration in Seward, and personally rides her bike the seven miles to work every day in the hopes of making a personal impact. As a role model Meghan wants the AGLP group to remember the tragic affects that Climate Change has had on the places we’ve visited.
“Remember what you see, what you like. Just soak it all in. you don’t have to do any journaling or picture taking, but remember, if any of this has a huge impact on your life, don’t forget it. Have it really influence your decisions on how you consider and interact with the marine environment. Consider taking marine classes in college or high school….definitely put this on your resume.”
Although Meghan plans to live in Seward, she has traveled extensively and hopes to continue doing so. She wishes the same for all of us on the trip.

Thank you to Meghan for your time and insight.

Anneke Fleming