Thanks to Elise Zevitz '08, an eager and adventurous alumna, Prairie's 1st graders now enjoy an up close and personal look at the world's coldest continent.
The letters – many handwritten, several stuffed with stickers and pictures and patches – are remarkable not only for the care with which they were created, but also for their willingness to share a world equal parts breathtaking, beautiful, and remote.
Earlier this semester, as part of their unit on Antarctica, Prairie 1st grade students – under the guidance of Susan Holum and Valerie Olmstead – wrote to workers at McMurdo Station, the United States Antarctic research center on the southern tip of Ross Island. The students wanted to know about life on the continent.
How are weather balloons launched? Where does your food come from? Can you pick up the penguins?
And while certain legalities prohibit McMurdo scientists from answering certain questions, the students received detailed letter after detailed letter from the firemen and production cooks working at the station.
“We told the kids, ‘Just like there are many different people at Prairie working to make sure you get an excellent education, there are a lot of important people at McMurdo working to ensure the scientists can do their best research’,” says Holum. “Often times, the people working in the support roles are amazing academics simply on the adventure of a lifetime.”
Such was the case for Elise Zevitz ’08. Zevitz – currently teaching English at Hitit Universitesi in Corum, Turkey on a Fulbright grant – spent time at McMurdo in 2015.
Following graduation from the College of William & Mary in 2012, she spent a year in Washington, D.C. interning in the publication department at the Middle East Institute, and at the World Resources Institute as a Communications Assistant with EMBARQ, their sustainable transport and urban development program.
In 2013, Zevitz traveled to Israel, where she worked as a recorder for the Israeli team at the Tel Dor archeological excavation. Following the summer dig season, she spent a year as a visiting graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, during which she traveled to Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories.
Then came McMurdo, where Zevitz worked on a 40-person support crew similar to the one that corresponded with Prairie’s 1st graders this spring.
“I worked five days a week as a dining attendant in the galley,” says Zevitz. “I also served on the MCI Team, a
group of volunteers trained to mobilize in the event of a Multiple Casualty Incident (MCI) where the number of ill or injured requiring treatment would exceed the normal capacity of the small medical facility.”
While Zevitz was at McMurdo, Dr. Jean Weaver, Prairie Science Department Chair – or, as Zevitz describes her, “My Upper School advisor/Middle School basketball coach/mentor extraordinaire” – contacted her about collaborating with the 1st grade on Antarctica. While bandwidth restrictions made Skype impossible, Zevitz was more than happy to visit campus – with a bunch of cool ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear on loan from the U.S. Antarctic Program – in April of 2015.
“The season after I visited, a close friend of mine – Andre Fleuette, the Assistant Fire Chief at McMurdo – said he’d be willing to respond to letters from the students, and the rest is history.”
Last year, Fleuette did indeed take the time to write every student. This spring, he enlisted the help of his fellow support crew members to give the students a look at Antarctic life that few in the world receive.
“The letters have been amazing,” says Holum. “Some have gone on for pages; some included drawings and stickers. It’s been great for the kids. Kind of makes me want to volunteer at McMurdo.”
Zevitz will be the first to encourage not only Holum, but anyone interested in spending time on the ice one day.
“You may not be a penguin biologist or particle physicist, but if you are an American citizen with experience as a mechanic, welder, heavy equipment operator, cook, dishwasher, nurse, computer technician, firefighter, or several other professions, there might be a position for you with
ACTIVE AND INVOLVED
Elise Zevitz ’08 has a true passion for life.
In addition to the adventures she has already logged, she hopes to become fluent in Arabic and Turkish, continue her EMT training, and pursue a career that will allow her to combine her favorite interests – Middle Eastern history, culture and languages, travel and exploration, and a desire to improve the lives of others.
One way Zevitz does the latter is through her work with diabetes awareness. Diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic at the age of ten, Zevitz participates in a variety of organizations that encourage those with diabetes to remain active. An avid rock climber, Zevitz has summited both Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and Mt. Rainier in Washington state, the latter of which she did after raising $5,000 to sponsor wilderness expeditions for children and teenagers with diabetes.