Educators learn on island

Introduction to Biology at SPU is a course tailored to education majors, and introduces them to scientific concepts they may teach their own students one day. In 2024, Dr. Elena Brezynski led a class of ten students to Blakely Island on a weekend trip where they waded in tide pools, hiked mountains and interacted with a lot of cool critters.

Island friends

Students build, strengthen relationships among flora and fauna

The BIO 2571 class looks out over Blakely Island during their weekend trip in May 2022. (Courtesy of Sydney Naour)

Jared Larkin, a 2023 Seattle Pacific University graduate, was not excited for his trip to Blakely Island. As a part of an ecology course, taught by Dr. Long, Larkin was required to spend a weekend on the island among people he barely knew. Then his only friend in the course unceremoniously told Larkin they would be skipping the trip.

“I only found out when they didn’t show up for the boat ride to the island,” Larkin explained. “I was quite peeved.”

Though he was not initially thrilled to be on the trip, it ended up better than Larkin could have guessed. He felt that the limits of the island made it easier to form bonds with people. Since he could only spend time with the other students in his class, he had to make the best of it.

“I talked with people that I hadn’t ever spoken to directly in that class for the previous seven weeks, and I learned that I totally misjudged some people,” he said. “I had made conclusions about people, two people in particular, that weren’t justified. I remember hiking back from taking tree measurements all day, and I walked with these two people that I did not think that I liked. After talking with them for 30 minutes, I learned so much about them and had a good time.”

Sydney Naour, a senior education major at SPU, visited Blakely for an introduction to biology course she took her sophomore year. She remembers how easy it was to feel close to her classmates during the weekend.

“Our class instantly bonded just on the ride over because we were some of the only people on this small vessel. Same thing when we were at the field station,” she said. “The designated spaces for us to be indoors together was limited so you almost had to get to know everyone closely. We all ate meals together, spent all day together whether it was course related activities or free time.”

Sydney Naour poses with a crab she found on Blakely Island. (Courtesy of Sydney Naour)

Ava Liebendorfer, a senior ecology major, has been to Blakely Island for four different classes: ecology, plant taxonomy, conservation biology and general biology.

During the conservation course, Liebendorfer became friends with two Seattle University students. SPU collaborates with SU to allow students from both universities to be a part of summer courses on Blakely Island.

“It was really cool to be able to interact with students from other schools in that way,” Liebendorfer said.

Liebendorfer has built new friendships on the shores of Blakely, but has also strengthened existing ones. Most notably, their friendship with Spencer Raymond, a 2024 SPU graduate.

“Spencer is my best friend,” Liebendorfer said. “We have done so many classes together, and he is just a wonderful person. Every time I’ve been to Blakely with Spencer there’s new memories, new jokes to laugh about.”

In total, Raymond has taken seven trips to Blakely Island, for classes as well as to volunteer at SPU’s field station. 

“Any trip I took with people I had already known, and especially with people I had gone to Blakely with multiple times, really strengthened those friendships,” Raymond said. “[Ava] was with me for four of those trips and I can probably owe the fact that we are so close now to all of those trips.”

A polaroid of Spencer Raymond and Ava Liebendorfer, taken on Blakely Island during their summer conservation course. (Courtesy of Ava Liebendorfer)

Raymond agrees with Larkin and Naour that the environment of Blakely makes it the perfect place for bonding. 

“Being on the island, especially for any longer trips, like with summer classes, you get to do so many really cool things and see beautiful sights, which you can’t help but share with the people you’re out there with,” he said. “You get so many quiet moments to do things like talk, play cards or roast marshmallows where you can really get to know the people you’re with.”

Every student who takes a class on the island comes back with stories that stick with them forever. For Naour, her favorite memory was the boat ride from Anacortes to Blakely. 

“My classmates were pretending to be Jack and Rose on the Titanic for the thousands of pictures we all took. It was so hilarious people taking turns for their photo opp,” she recalled.

Now, Naour loves looking back on the photos and reliving her memories. Though she was only able to visit the island once, she wishes her coursework would have taken her back to Blakely.

Liebendorfer recalled a time during the conservation course when a group of students were all together, talking about wild carrots they had found on the island. One of their classmates cracked a joke that had everyone laughing — so much so that Raymond fell to the ground in tears. Liebendorfer remembers this as “the funniest thing that has ever happened” to them.

“[Blakely] is like an adult sleepaway camp,” Liebendorfer said. “You form community really soon. Even people that you might not necessarily think you would get along with, or people that you might not get along with, it opens up an opportunity for you to kind of forget about real-life context. You just get to exist in this fun space where you’re learning.”