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Syracuse University offers 'Arctic Journey.'

Natives eligible for full scholarships to program

By Jessica Nicastro -- Today correspondent

NEDROW, N.Y. - Carol Thomas is similar to most college students on the cusp of graduation. She is debating whether to enter the work force or attend graduate school, and is anxious about post-graduate life. But during her hour-long presentation at the Onondaga Nation School Dec. 18, it became obvious that Thomas is no ordinary college student.

In the past two years, she has eaten seal in the Arctic and jumped into the jellyfish-infested White Sea, and is spending her winter break studying in the Great Barrier Reef. Her globe-trotting expedition began with the help of Syracuse University's ''Arctic Journey: Movement Leaders in a Global Environment'' summer study abroad program in 2006. Students live in Arctic Inuit communities in Iqaluit, Nunavut, for four weeks after attending a three- to four-day orientation in Ottawa, Canada.

Thomas, who attends the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, spoke casually during her presentation. She told anecdotes about her experiences and showed pictures of memorable moments. The small crowd of 15 to 20 people often laughed and reacted with awe to Thomas' adventures.

For example, Thomas was able to spend a day on the ice, hunting seals with Meeka Mike and her team of hunters.

''Being out on the ice was probably the best experience out there and probably among the best experiences of my life,'' Thomas said.

Not only did the experience on the ice allow Thomas the opportunity to eat seal fresh from the ocean, it also helped immerse her in the Inuit lifestyle.

''I'm fascinated by their culture - for thousands of years, this is how they've lived,'' she said. ''A lot of people don't go out and buy steak; they still go hunting all of the time.''

In the first half of the presentation, she described her trip to the Arctic. Later, she focused on the trip she took to Russia with SUNY-ESF in the summer of 2007. However, the presentation was primarily intended to inform Natives about Syracuse University's Arctic opportunity.

''The Onondaga Nation Education Committee put this together as an effort to reach out to Onondaga Nation members and other members to raise awareness about this opportunity,'' said Nell Bartkowiak, assistant director for program development and summer programs at SU. Bartkowiak and SU Study Abroad Program Assistant Tracy Humpleby attended Thomas' presentation and brought applications to distribute to interested audience members.

Although the study abroad program had seven participants from around the United States in 2006, there was not an overwhelming interest in the program.

''We got candidates but there was no competition,'' Barkowiak said. ''I don't know if we want competition, but it would be nice to have a pool of applicants.''

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Anyone can apply to the bi-annual program. Two fully funded scholarships that cover tuition, housing and travel costs are available to Native participants, with preference given to members of the Onondaga Nation.

''In the past, we were targeting Onondaga, but any indigenous student is eligible,'' said Bartkowiak, referring to the scholarships.

Thomas was one of the two participants to receive the full scholarship in 2006. She first heard of the opportunity through her mother, Wendy Gonyea, who is a member of the Onondaga Nation Education Committee. Gonyea heard about the program from SU Adjunct Professor Holly Dobbins, who is the creator and director of the Arctic Journey program.

Dobbins traveled to Nunavut in 2002 as part of her research for her doctoral dissertation. During this time, she met Inuk David Omilgoitok, deputy minister of the department of executive and intergovernmental affairs in Nunavut. Omilgoitok was given the opportunity to visit several places in the United States in 2005. He chose to visit Syracuse - ''which much surprised the United States State Department,'' said Dobbins, with a laugh.

During this visit, Omilgoitok spoke at SU and met with the Onondaga Nation Education Committee and community members. The successful visit led to Syracuse University asking Dobbins to create a study abroad program, she said.

Dobbins said she came up with conditions that she assumed would be considered impossible. These conditions included the two fully funded scholarships for indigenous participants, substantial partial scholarships for other participants, funding two Nunavummiut to study abroad at SU during the summer and for the entire program to be non-profit.

''But without hesitation, they said 'Yes!''' she said.

Despite being caught off guard by the university's acceptance of her conditions, she is thrilled at how it has come together.

''When I knew Syracuse University was so willing to put their money where their mouth was - I knew I had the freedom to create a program that facilitates the exchange of indigenous knowledge,'' Dobbins said.

Although the program includes extensive reading and writing assignments, the main focus is on community service and interconnectivity.

''People have to be willing to share themselves,'' Dobbins said. ''There's no more sure way to learn about others than to share yourself.''

And by embracing this idea, Thomas left Nunavut with newfound knowledge and joy.

''It definitely taught me so many lessons about how strong Inuit people are,'' she said. ''It really makes you a better person and is the best time you could ever ask for.''

For more information about the 2006 Arctic Journey, visit the student-created Web site For more information about the summer 2008 trip, visit The application deadline is March 1.