General Manager Shaleena Bott poses for a photo in the hotel lobby.

Checking in with distance student, Shaleena Bott

On the east side of Baranof Island, overlooking Chatham Strait and other mountainous islands, a salmon hatchery pulls water from the lake seated in the mountains overhead. 

It was at Hidden Falls Hatchery that Shaleena Bott first saw an advertisement for the University of Alaska Southeast’s Fisheries Technology program. The Utah native had first moved to Alaska to work at the hatchery, run by Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (NSRAA), in 2014. 

 “I thought, ‘I’m working in the field. I might as well get the degree,’” said Bott, recalling the cardboard postcard reading “Earn a higher education in fisheries.” 

Despite having a spotty history with education, Bott enrolled part-time at Sitka Campus in 2016. She had had some college experience and a GED, but she had struggled in class settings since her parents had pulled her out of school in the fifth grade, she said.

Born in South Korea, Bott was adopted and raised in Brigham City, Utah. She was the only adoption and the only girl among seven children, brought up by two religious parents who chose to homeschool their children. She helped run the family business instead of continuing her education, she said.

At 17 years old, Bott lied about her age to land a nanny position in New York. The East Coast culture exposed her to history, arts, and values she had not been exposed to in the west.    

“Back east, education is a huge priority. [My employer] told me that if I wanted to get into college, she would help me. I just needed my transcript,” said Bott. “Because I didn’t finish high school, I didn’t even know what that was. That lit a fire in me.”

Bott hid a dictionary in her room and secretly studied its content to improve her reading and comprehension skills. Thanks to her Long Island employer, she connected higher education with more opportunities, although she never disclosed that she lacked a high school degree. 

Instead, Bott enrolled in a GED program in Utah, after moving back upon her mother’s request. She finished the program two months after giving birth to her son, Gabriel, in 2002.

“Your kids make you realize that you have to provide for them,” said Bott. That logic motivated her enrollment at Utah State University the following year. However, Bott struggled to balance various customer service management jobs and single parenting and felt discouraged by the faculty who seemed impatient with her lower literacy level, she said. She dropped out shortly after starting.

Bott tried another approach. Eleven years later, she made the heart-wrenching decision to leave Gabriel with his father. She instead followed her boyfriend Benjamin “Benji” Burbank, a fish culturist for NSRAA, to pursue work at the Alaskan hatchery, she said.

“Salmon fisheries is great. You get to work on your own, be outdoors, see Alaska in all its beauty, and you’re not responsible for anything except maybe 7.5 million fish,” said Bott.  

Bott began classes in 2016. All of Bott’s classes were online, except for the fish pathology lab. She explained the convenience of the program’s iPads, complete with the lessons and assignments already downloaded. University staff send the iPads to students, who then return them when they finish the course. 

“When you live remote, you don’t always have internet,” Bott explained. “You do your work, and when you have internet, it uploads everything you’ve done.”

Bott recognized faculty Reid Brewer and Joel Markis for their engaging lessons. She also acknowledged Financial Literacy Specialist Joy Klushkan for sharing funding opportunities and Academic Advisor Amelia Budd for being empathetic to her circumstances. 

“There’s that connection, and it’s great even though you don’t get to meet these people,” she said.

Bott and Burbank transitioned to Neets Bay Hatchery in Ketchikan in 2016. They later found work in Haines, where Bott currently manages the Aspen Hotel while also finishing an Associate of Applied Science in Fisheries Management. She hopes to finish her degree by Spring 2020 and transition back into the field.

“We loved providing for the fisheries to keep the economy growing,” she said. “I’m a strong believer in experience over education, but there are things I never would have gotten to experience without education.”

Looking forward, Bott is also cheering on her son as he approaches high school graduation. “I don’t want him to be 40 and to go through life like me,” Bott said. “He knows education is super important to me.” Gabriel is currently considering a B.A. in psychology at the University of Utah.