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. Everyday 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 afterall. 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 me nor my five siblings carried on the tradition. After taking my first writing-for-journalism class 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 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 health care workers for newspaper articles.
At this point, I decided to do a complete 180 and fulfill my dream of teaching English abroad. Throughout college, I had developed an interest in Korean popular culture and studied Korean language my senior year. During the lockdown in spring 2020, I took the opportunity to use the extra free time that would have spent on friends and extracurriculars to earn my TEFL certification – Teaching English as a Foreign Language. A year and a half later, I spent Christmas 2021 with my family before flying out early the next morning to Seoul, South Korea, to embark on my biggest adventure yet.
I spent the next 14 months teaching English to a class of 3 year-old students, freshly weened from their parents, as they were still learning to grasp their native language and navigate social interactions with classmates, all on top of learning a vastly different foreign tongue. Suffice 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. Towards 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. This opportunity felt like the right amount of flexibility and adventure, and so I made the move to Friday Harbor last April, working for 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 for this opportunity to work for the Journal and continue its work of keeping the community informed and connected.