Alaina Dochylo '17
Six Questions for an Alumna
Majors: Environmental Studies and Creative Writing
Minor: Wilderness Education
Can you discuss the work that you’ve been doing for FEMA in response to Hurricane Michael?
“I was deployed through AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), FEMA Corps. AmeriCorps NCCC is a 10 month, government funded, team-based program. Some call it a service year, and anyone can apply—everyone should apply! Our primary mission was to register survivors for federal assistance. We acted as walking pools of knowledge, spreading word of the free kitchen over by city hall, where the American Red Cross had showers set up and where they could use a functioning telephone. Our team arrived to Mexico Beach, Fla., two days after Hurricane Michael hit.
I remember our van falling silent as we drove through the wreckage of the city. Massive piles of debris lined the streets. Wires and fencing had fallen like tinsel. When we arrived at the waterfront, there were stakes jutting eerily out of the ground that once acted as stilts for raised homes, and concrete foundations were wiped clean. The biggest challenges of our response were at times what made it worth it—falling into the life of a survivor, hearing their story, or seeing the abrupt realization that they have lost everything. Mexico Beach was the setting of many second homes, so a lot of the survivors we interacted with had just returned to see it in shambles. There were open tears, while others laughed in disbelief.
Come, come, take a seat at the table. Would you like some tea? One woman asked me this as I collected her information on the foundation of her home, sun hot on our backs and red tide scratching our throats. My team and I came to realize that although we were there to punch people’s info into an iPad for someone on the other end to decipher—we were also suddenly columns of support for these people. Strangers felt like family in just a day’s time. It was a challenge that really opened our eyes.”
“Some of my greatest memories at SUNY Potsdam were made outside of the classroom. My favorite part about being a student was probably the overall variety of opportunities. You could always find something new to do—something you’ve never tried before.”
What other projects have you been working on since graduating from SUNY Potsdam?
“Since graduating from college, I’ve really just been thinking about what I want to do. That’s what AmeriCorps was, in hindsight- a good way to kill time and give back while figuring out the next move. I might’ve said it was a stepping stone to the Peace Corps, but that’s changed some. Since graduating, I’ve earned my TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) certification through an online academy, and I plan to use it abroad when the opportunity presents itself. It’s proven to be one of the best ways to travel and live around the world.
Since witnessing the damage in the Florida Panhandle, I also traveled back to Panama City, Fla., to volunteer with All Hands and Hearts: Smart Response. Back in the Panhandle, I was trained in chainsaw use and maintenance, how to use power tools (oscillating saws, reciprocating saws, etc.), how to interact with homeowners, and the delicate yet exciting process of a muck and gut project. My good friend and SUNY Potsdam alumna, Abby Adams, also volunteered at the same site, and we were able to work together for two weeks. As time passed, I grew to become an assistant team leader and the team leader for our daily work sites. We worked six days a week, and each day brings something new. I could be cutting or limbing fallen trees into smaller pieces for a team to clear, allowing access to a home, or removing drywall from a bedroom that has been affected by black mold—a fungus that can cause health problems if not taken care of properly. The program attracts a unique, selfless group of people who are truly hard to leave, and the work, unpaid, is more rewarding than any I've ever done. This two-month experience has changed me forever, and I know I will be coming back to this project or another when possible.”
Can you discuss your time at SUNY Potsdam? What were some of the most valuable experiences and educational opportunities on campus?
Being a student at SUNY Potsdam was great! I would low-key boast about how awesome my years were in Potsdam to high schoolers in FEMA Corps, ultimately encouraging them to get a degree in something they’re passionate about, but to also experience college life. Some of my greatest memories at SUNY Potsdam were made outside of the classroom. My favorite part about being a student was probably the overall variety of opportunities. You could always find something new to do—something you’ve never tried before. Whether it was Ski Club, a Black Student Alliance Fashion Show, step class, writer’s cafe, the LoKo Arts Festival, or live musical performances—you barely had to look for it.”
Classes at SUNY Potsdam were pretty awesome. From philosophical debates with environmental professors to the hilarities of unpacking early literature and poetry, the dull moments of academics always seemed to have a silver lining. I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak about the Crane School of Music population, the off-kilter, in-house concerts students would throw. I lived with and met some of the most outgoing, unique individuals. The wilderness education minor was a big part of it all. Long weekends, where most students headed home, were often met with trips into the Adirondacks. I really started to learn who I was through those trips, what parts of myself I wanted to embrace and what parts I needed to improve on. Self-growth was integrated into the minor itself.
Were there one or two professors who were particularly influential to you?
Adam Wheeler is a driving force behind the Wilderness Education Program. His guidance and devotion to building leaders in an outdoor setting was a constant inspiration. I wouldn’t have joined the leadership track and be where I am today if he didn’t rope me into it! Mark Simon, the head of the program, guided us on our 21-day backpacking trip through the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. Thanks to Simon and this course, I was able to gain the skills and confidence that would propel me to go further in life. My time as a creative writing major at SUNY Potsdam was everything under the sun—exciting, heartbreaking, infuriating and fulfilling. Professor Donald McNutt, head of the Department of English and Communication, inspired me to write about all of it—the good, the bad, and the in-between. Sometimes I felt I had developed a sixth sense during those years; the ability to connect ideas in a meaningful way thanks to time spent in his classes. Professor Annie Stoltie pushed me to write better in every sense of the word. The whimsical style I developed as a sophomore was honed into something actually worth publishing after a couple of semesters with her.”
What skills did you learn at SUNY Potsdam?
“The wilderness education minor taught me hundreds of things. It introduced me to rock climbing: the basics of top-roping, how to tie in, how to belay. I learned everything I needed to know about backpacking, from navigating the land using a map and compass, to operating a single-burner stove, to dozens of techniques on how to throw a bear line. I learned how to stay dry, hydrated, fed and happy. Fundamental self-care is amplified in the woods—I was able to become stronger than I ever would have guessed.
While SUNY Potsdam taught me tons of hard skills, I was also able to grasp the actually difficult stuff. I was able to strengthen skills like communication, punctuality, patience and inclusion. What you don’t know you could do, suddenly becomes essential. Stuff like leading by example, building others up, or not being afraid to admit you don’t know something. Embracing the suck.
The rocky parts of any trip are always there for a reason. They make the bright days seem brighter, and it’s lessons like these that translate into life outside of the woods.”
Can you talk about your experience hiking the John Muir Trail?
“That trip sort of epitomizes my education at SUNY Potsdam. Keagan Anderson inspired me to enter the permit lottery. I remember the night we got the email that we’d won permits, defying all doubt. Alumni Hannah Racette and Melissa Cole joined me on the trail. We spent a handful of evenings in our living room, talking and ogling over Google images of blue streams, jagged mountain peaks, everything such a trail had to offer. Graduation came and went, as did the planning: phone calls across time zones, dropping food orders thousands of miles away, estimating mileage through online maps. While a lot of the planning paid off, a lot of it also proved to be a shot in the dark. Everything happened the way it was always going to. Our little team definitely surprised ourselves despite the occasional ‘oops.’ We met so many people out there, our trio weaving among different groups or solo hikers for days at a time.
Folks came to know us as the three New York girls. For a few days, we traveled with a Jenna Boss who had graduated from Clarkson University. Jenna was filming a documentary on the JMT, her pack riddled with tech. We met people from all over—Spain, Japan, London, California, and a few New Yorkers in the mix. The trail itself was a sidewalk, almost impossible to lose. The two overachievers I walked with loved pulling long days, but they were long, beautiful days. You couldn’t fully absorb it all, there was just so much to see. Ultimately, we gained around 46,000 feet in elevation from start to finish. Yosemite Valley was this idyllic entrance with winding streams, walls of green, where insects and creatures thrived. The environment gradually shifted as we ascended through the trail, changing into the dramatic ranges and plummeting cliffs. Up in the Sierras, it wouldn’t feel like Planet Earth at times. Wanda Lake, named after one of John Muir’s daughters, was a perfect reflection of the mountains hugging it. The trek around that lake was so still and silent. The only sound around was boot on rock and your own breath. After Forester Pass, mere miles before Whitney, we could have been on Mars. Reddish dirt, enormous plateaus, trees growing rare. The scenery was just always changing.
There was snowfall on our last day. We woke up before sunrise, hiking up that initial slope in darkness. When the sun came out, we couldn’t see much through the fog and snow. The trail up Whitney was from a Tolkien novel, both breathtaking and a little scary. At the final junction, we dropped pack and walked up to the summit. Two miles there and back—in retrospect, we should have brought something with us. It didn’t really matter at that moment; four miles was a walk in the park at that point. But the fog we woke up with didn’t disappear at the summit, and the view was completely shrouded. Three hundred and sixty degrees of vast, grey clouds and whipping wind. We touched the summit marker, read signatures in the lightning hut, danced around some cairns, and descended. We didn’t take any photos, or leave any marks. We could’ve been anywhere in the world in that cloud. Blue sky emerged not two hours later, the hike down more crowded than the entire trail had been. It was such a strange experience, turning around and seeing the jagged side of Whitney. Ansel Adams did it justice, but it’s another thing to be at the foot of such a thing. The rest of the trip consisted of hostels in California, bouldering with a gaggle of other thru-hikers, and somehow making it to the Las Vegas Strip. Our bus ride to Bishop, the initial drive out of the wilderness, was hard to forget. The sunset was glowing over the Sierra range, casting peaks in a deep purple, shadows stretching over but not quite reaching the road. It was absolutely a divider between two worlds. I felt like the land on the other side of that range was saying goodbye. I think that if a lot of people could live life out there, always, they would.”