By Isabel Ashley
Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, I could not think of a more topographically different place in the United States to end up in than a temperate island off of the coast of Washington. Every day I am struck with the beauty of the cascade mountains looming in the distance, the lush forests of hundred-foot-tall fir trees, and the frigid waters of the Salish Sea breaking against the shore, contrasting heavily to my upbringing in a flat and landlocked state.
But it wasn’t all that bad; Kansas was home after all. I attended Baker University – the oldest private school in the state – after a year at St. Olaf College in Minnesota (turns out, I could not handle the cold). I originally thought I would study medicine to become an eye doctor like the three generations of ophthalmologists on my father’s side, but it turns out that neither I nor my five siblings carried on the tradition. After taking my first writing-for-journalism class in my sophomore year, I knew it was time to change course.
I started writing for the collegiate newspaper, later becoming the news editor. I also took an interest in radio broadcasting – NPR was constantly playing in the car growing up – and I hosted my own radio shows, “Broadway Bangerz” and “What’s K-poppin’?”, which played show tunes and Kpop, respectively. I interned for Kansas Public Radio for two years before graduating college in the spring of 2021 with a degree in Mass Media and a minor in Chemistry (all of those pre-med classes should count for something, right?). Following graduation, I interned for GEHA, the largest health insurance agency for government employees, as a content writer. I later accepted an internship for a local hospital as a marketing intern, interviewing physicians and healthcare workers for articles that I wrote for the newspaper.
At this point, I decided to do a complete 180 and fulfill my dream of teaching English abroad. Throughout college, I developed an interest in Korean popular culture and studied the Korean language during my senior year. When the pandemic had everyone on lockdown, I took the opportunity to spend my extra free time not spent with friends and extracurriculars to earn my TEFL certification – Teaching English as a Foreign Language. I spent Christmas with my family in 2021 before flying out early the next morning to Seoul, South Korea.
I spent the next 14 months teaching English to a class of 3-year-old students, freshly weaned from their parents, who were learning to grasp their native language as well as navigate social interactions with classmates, all on top of learning a vastly different foreign tongue. Suffice it to say, it was challenging at times, but of all the places I traveled and experiences I shared, my incredible students were my favorite part.
While teaching in Korea, I became close with one of my coworkers who was also from the US, and she is ultimately the reason why I am on the island today. Toward the end of our time in Korea, I lamented to her how I wasn’t sure what path I wanted to pursue upon our inevitable return home. She suggested I take a seasonal position working with her on San Juan Island for a whale-watching company while I decided what I wanted to do. After contemplation, I felt like it was the right amount of flexibility and adventure, so I made the move to Friday Harbor last April, working at San Juan Safaris and Outfitters as a front desk reservationist.
As the summer came to an end, I found myself not ready to leave this beautiful place; the scenery and sense of community (and my moped!) contributed to my decision to stay here. Towards the end of September, when I came across an opening at the Journal, I thought it would be the perfect way to get back into the career I had left unfinished. Since starting in October, I have been reminded again and again of the joys of working as a journalist; the opportunity to meet different people (and there is no shortage of noteworthy people on this island) and tell their stories. I am endlessly thankful for what this island has given me, and I am very excited about this opportunity to work for the Journal and continue its work of keeping the community informed and connected.