Anna Apilado grew up in the Philippines before moving to the US when she was 11. In this alumni spotlight, she reflects on her experience in Alaska last summer—experiencing a new part of America, the value of comfortable silences, and plans for the future.

What was it like living in such a different culture and environment within your home country?

I’ve moved from another country and across the United States, so the feeling of being in a different environment was familiar to me. American culture is still something I haven’t fully familiarized myself with, so having that experience in Alaska was a great way to diversify what I think of it. Being exposed to totally unique traditions inspires me to learn more about the rest of the world that I haven’t seen.

Where were you living before LA, and how long have you been in the US?

I was born in the Philippines and I moved to LA when I was 11. So I’ve been here in the US for about four and a half years now.

What was it like coming back to “real life” and school?

Even through just the weekly phone calls I’d have with my family while in Alaska, there was an interesting realization I got that reminded me that I was in such a serene, peaceful, and isolated village so far from grind and stress of city life and social media. At first, I thought I was missing out on so many things. This was the summer that Pokemon GO was released, but it was also when some violent and awful news reports came out. When I got back, realized how amazing it is to be fully present in my daily life and not be checking my phone every five minutes.

What are you up to now?

I currently attend the Putney School in southern Vermont. I’ve lived in a tropical country and an all-year-long sunny state, so cold, snowy, and icy weather are still learning experiences for me. I am currently invested in creative writing, community service, ballet, and philosophy.

How did your VISIONS experience help to prepare you for where you are now and what’s still to come?

Aside from exposing me to glaciers and cold environments, my VISIONS experience changed my approach to new environments and people. I learned to let got of my expectations and just accept what is in front of me. Coming to Alaska, it was easy to have all these expectations of how unique and different Tetlin culture could be. However, one of the cooler things I realized is that they’re a lot more similar to me than we are different. We all try to find ways to spend long afternoons, it just so happens they use this time to make birch baskets or small little canoes and people in LA would prefer going to the movies. And amidst these activities, we have silences that open up conversations; meeting someone in the city requires us to close up those silences and keep the conversation going, but when making birch baskets you can have as many silences as you want and it won’t be awkward.

What kinds of projects did you focus on in Alaska? Any favorites?

I really enjoyed making birch baskets and harvesting and cutting mushrooms with one of the elders.

What were the other students like? Are you still in touch with any of them?

One of the students in my group currently goes to my school [Putney] right now, and I’ve kept in contact through social media with some of the others!

Backpacking or ice climbing—which was your favorite?

The experience itself of climbing through ice and kicking glaciers with crampons was the best, but the sense of accomplishment backpacking through a 2.5 mile hike with an altitude of 1,800 ft. was so much better, even if it felt like the end of the world during the hike itself.

In what ways, big or small, would you like to change the world?

There are a few things I would like to add to the world: more appreciation for silence and more understanding and toleration of each other regardless of sex, gender, religion, race, and political party/beliefs.

What do you hope to be doing 10 years from now?

In 10 years, I want to have a beagle named Charlie. I would probably still be going to university, studying philosophy and math. By then, I want to have published a poetry chapbook.

Poetry, philosophy, math, and Charlie! Sounds like a busy future! If you had one piece of advice for teens considering VISIONS, what would it be?

Hm… whether you’re a poet, a math geek, or someone who loves nature and helping others, there is a place for you in VISIONS. It’s what you make out of this unique experience with nature, people, and service that you will value even after the program ends.

Check out the VISIONS Alaska page for more details on our work in the land of the midnight sun!

VISIONS in The New York Times