At first, Joe Jacobs was studying pre-dentistry. But after taking a class in marine biology, he realized that he could not imagine spending his life looking into people’s mouths, so he changed his degree to marine biology.

By finding his own calling, Jacobs is able to help Elon University students do the same.

With so many students studying abroad each year, many different cultures are bound to be experienced. Jacobs, a visiting professor, is helping show the community that you do not have to travel to a different continent to embrace a different culture.

“Elon students need to go to Alaska to get a sense of reality,” Jacobs said. “We humans are totally out of touch with the natural environment. I am going to guess that most of Elon students’ parents were probably born around the time Alaska became a state. Alaska is still evolving — a moving history.”

The ideal student for the trip to Alaska is one who seeks understanding that cannot be found in books, loves the outdoors and is interested in other cultures, Jacobs said.

“The indigenous people lived without electronics for 8,000 years,” Jacobs said. “I like to help people realize that they don’t have to go to Africa or India to immerse themselves in other cultures.”

The course is an online class during Summer Session I, except for the 10 days spent in Alaska. A professor serves as the course leader and assigns the work and grades, but Jacobs serves as the leader and guide during the time in Alaska.

“Joe’s passion for Alaskan culture and wilderness is infectious,” said Barbara Gordon, course instructor for the class and an associate professor of English. “He generally takes time from his work to share Alaska with Elon students because he wants to introduce young people to the state. Joe’s affiliation with this program makes it a special and unique opportunity for Elon students.”

There are many opportunities for the students who go to Alaska, and many have fallen in love with the wilderness just like Jacobs did. Jacobs employed one of the students who took the Alaska class the very first year.

In 2004, Jacobs spoke to a professor at Elon about teaching canoeing and kayaking and has been teaching it ever since.

[quote]Elon students need to go to Alaska to get a sense of reality.[/quote]

His training in the field of science and his interest in nature led to him becoming the director of science for the North East region of the nature conservancy. When they opened an office in Alaska, they asked him to go. He has gone back to Alaska every year since.

“I was at LSU for nine years as a college student,” Jacobs said. “College friends were almost as much my identity as I was. Until I went on my own quest, I didn’t know who I was.”

When Jacobs was working on his doctorate, he went alone to an island off the gulf coast of Mississippi. For two weeks he didn’t see another person or hear any of the noises that he describes as part of the daily grind.

Each summer, Jacobs finds this silence when he goes to Alaska from June to August, and sometimes in January. In Alaska, he has a canoeing and kayaking company, and he owns what he describes as a piece of paradise on a cliff.

Jacobs is not the only person who has found himself in the Alaska program. Gordon is drawn to Alaska because she  said she believes what is wild and uncivilized can be a means for experiencing her truest self.

“I started following my passions, which don’t involve the pressures of research,” Jacobs said. “I am more of a naturalist.”

He cut back on some of his other trips, including an annual one in November, in order to teach classes each semester.

“I just love being at a university,” Jacobs said. “When someone tells me they are graduating, I give them my condolences. A teacher I knew got together a group of students and had me teach them how to roll a kayak. I realized that I wish I had gone to a school the size of Elon and decided to teach.”

As much as Jacobs has come to love Elon, he also describes it as a setting that can be so loud that you can’t hear yourself. But he said he always finds himself again in Alaska, Jacobs said.

“The first time I went home, when I felt the plane take off, I knew that I had to go back,” Jacobs said. “It was like leaving a girlfriend. I felt heart pangs. I go back to screw my head on right. It's where I come closest to God.”