Glacier Bay Semester

program overview

2024 Dates: July 6th -November 9th, 2024
Application Deadline: March 15th, 2024

As our flagship program, the Glacier Bay Semester in Civic & Environmental Leadership brings twelve students into an immersive study away experience in the heart of Southeast Alaska. Students will live, study, and work together for four months as they consider how to be better leaders, community members, and citizens of the world. The program is built around three central pillars: academic work in the liberal arts and sciences; labor performed in service of campus and community; and democratic self-governance. Close-knit community life and wilderness exploration round out the experience. Based primarily at our Good River Campus, students will explore mossy old-growth forest, paddle through icy fjords, and climb the rugged alpine summits of Glacier Bay National Park and the Tongass National Forest.

Think about the Glacier Bay Semester like you would a study abroad program. We may operate in the United States, but rural Alaska is culturally distinct from much of America—especially its urban centers. A study abroad program in Toronto or London may in fact feel closer to home than the program we offer. Expect to chop the firewood that heats your living quarters. Expect the internet to be too spotty for Netflix. Expect to work closely with people who hold different political, religious, and cultural commitments than you. And expect to be challenged, to grow, to learn, and to laugh.


Our society faces four great crises in need of thoughtful, empathetic leaders in the years ahead. Through rigorous academic coursework, Glacier Bay Semester students take a deep dive into these civilizational challenges – democracy, justice, environment, and meaning – which we study in small, seminar-style courses. A fifth, place-based course immerses students in the natural and cultural history of this dynamic region. Each year, all students take one course in each of the following subject areas:

  • Governance & Democracy
  • Justice & Equality
  • Climate & Environment
  • Meaning & Purpose
  • Nature and Culture of Southeast Alaska

Many classes at Tidelines provide a rigorous intellectual space for students to engage with the experiential components of the program. Some faculty adopt a place-based approach, taking advantage of the cultural and environmental riches of Southeast Alaska. Such courses might explore topics like the Tlingit educational practices, the history of the conservation movement, and Alaskan climate activism. Other instructors may choose to integrate their teaching with the labor and self-governance pillars. This might look like a reading of Rousseau’s On the Social Contract paired with a discussion of different models of self-governance, or a unit on the history of labor movement to help students critically reflect on the role of physical work at Tidelines. 

Students can receive credit for up to five courses, either directly through their home institution or through our accreditation partnership with Western Colorado University. In most cases, schools are willing to transfer credits awarded by WCU. With our focus on civic and environmental leadership, most courses fall naturally under political science or environmental studies departments, though we prize interdisciplinary approaches and encourage students to seek cross-listings at their home institutions.  


Labor is a central part of life at Tidelines.  Glacier Bay Semester students labor in service to the community for roughly 20 hours a week. Labor is organized into student teams that vary from term to term, but usually include some combination of gardening, animal husbandry, carpentry, maintenance, cooking, and preserving.  What students actually do on a day-to-day basis in labor varies widely. Fishing for salmon and baking apple turnovers, building chicken coops and picnic table, harvesting spruce tips, weeding, shoveling snow, planting kale, gathering kelp, and feeding the ducks all fall under the umbrella of labor. Students also complete daily chores like washing dishes, stocking the outhouse, cleaning common areas, and chopping firewood. Because subsistence activities must follow natural rhythms, labor schedules change accordingly to accommodate salmon runs, favorable weather, and the tidal cycle. 

Tidelines believes that a truly expansive liberal arts education includes not just intellectual work, but work with your hands and work that serves other people. Our primary goal is not to train the next cadre of modern-day homesteaders. Rather, labor serves to broaden our students’ understanding of different ways of life; to invest them with the responsibility to care for their own community; to cultivate the virtues and skills that manual work can instill; and to foster a sense of interdependence within both human and natural ecosystems.


At Tidelines, students have the rare opportunity to form a political body that partially governs their own program. At weekly student body meetings, the cohort will gather to listen, decide, and guide the program. Self-governance carries real power at Tidelines: you will decide what trips to take, how to spend your student budget, and how to organize labor. You will elect students to positions of power within the program and the organization itself.  You will also serve on committees that hire professors and staff, create the curriculum for the next iteration of the program, and admit future students. 

Within the context of self-governance, students will come up against many of the same questions that societies encounter on a grander scale: how do we humanely and justly exercise power over one another? How do we share resources, especially when they are scarce? How do we navigate differences of opinion and experience? How do we balance the needs of the community against the needs of the individual? These are tough, abstract, questions that are made very concrete and real by self-governance. We thus hope that students will grapple with the challenges and joys of citizenship and leadership in a way that prepares them for a lifetime of service. 

community life

More nebulous and difficult to nail down than an academic or labor commitment, community living is perhaps the most intense and personally rich component of the Glacier Bay Semester.  Tidelines interweaves work and life to a much greater extent than most colleges.  Students live, work and play together with each other, their professors and the staff.  At Tidelines, you should expect to live closely with people who are very different from you—who are of different identities, hold different religious and political beliefs, who have different intellectual and personal interests, and who carry different cultural commitments. We, of course, expect you to treat all community members with respect, humanity, and generosity.

Community is present in every sector of life at Tidelines, and you can expect to live in close physical and emotional quarters with those around you. The closeness of the community offers you the gift of growing to know and care for your fellow community members deeply, and in a way that is difficult to achieve in a traditional college setting. 

Tidelines strives for a culture of open and honest communication, and frequent feedback. To this end, each year, the student body elects a review committee chair whose task is to collect and distribute feedback to each member of the program (both staff and students) about their presence in the community. 

wilderness exploration

Glacier Bay Semester students experience the best of the wildlands and rural communities of Southeast Alaska, moving back and forth between our Gustavus and Inian Islands campuses. Both locations are tiny human outposts amid a vast wilderness, enmeshed in the largest swath of protected land on earth. The town of Gustavus, population 400, lies at the intersection of Glacier Bay and the Inside Passage, and just east of the world’s tallest coastal mountains. The Inian Islands lie 25 miles to the west, a remote archipelago along Alaska’s rugged outer coast. Both locations offer unparalleled opportunities for outdoor exploration, and expeditions play a role in academics, labor, and self-governance. Regular visits to the region’s several unique ecosystems will constitute a core part of the learning course; optional weekend backpacking or kayaking trips will give students a chance to explore their environs. Students should come prepared for intensive activity in the wilderness – the ability to move over uneven terrain is a must in a land without established trails. Though challenging, these forays reward students with firsthand experience – on land and sea – of Alaska’s majestic wilderness.