After arriving in Unalaska roughly three months ago, interim reporter Caroline Lester has returned back home to Boston.
KUCB's Maggie Nelson sat down with Lester to talk about her time on the island, reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, and her upcoming adventures in California.
CAROLINE LESTER: Part of the reason I came here, part of the draw was that I've been working for a really long time on a story about the reparations that both Japanese Americans and Unangans got from being interned during World War II. And I grew up knowing about that. My grandma got reparations, but I had never heard what had happened to the Alaskan Native population up here. And when I did, I wanted to learn a lot more. We were taught to be proud of the money we received, but I think we have a lot to owe to the Unangan and their activism. So I have a story in the works to do that, to report on that history, to learn from the people here.
KUCB: So how do you think coming here and being a small town reporter during coronavirus shaped your work as a reporter?
LESTER: There are two things that I feel like I was thinking about: one, just being a hyper-local reporter where previously, before coming here, my number one reporting rule was to never write about anybody I knew. Because I prefer to not have previous emotional relationships or knowledge or whatever of anybody when I'm working on a story. And so, I guess I didn't really think about how that rule would work when I'm living in a town of 4500 people. It doesn't work and it quickly stopped happening. But it made me admire and respect so much, people who are local reporters. And I think that's incredible and really hard to do. And it just makes me respect that that much more. And for coronavirus, man, coronavirus in Alaska is crazy because you have these little towns that are basically self-governing so I think there's a huge burden on all of these local governments, in a way that is hard to understand, even as a reporter. But I have been so impressed with the city and the community's reaction to this. How much they've been working to try and make sure everybody is safe, everybody still has a job.
KUCB: So what did you hope to gain by coming up here—from this experience?
LESTER: I just wanted to come back to Alaska and I was so glad and grateful for the opportunity to do it in some kind of community role. But I just wanted to be outside and be in this little corner of the world that is totally fascinating and absolutely beautiful, that I don't think I would have had an opportunity to come to otherwise. And I really just wanted to learn. Reporting out here has taught me that I know nothing and it takes years and years and years to gain the expertise and experience to be able to report on a community, especially one that is so unique. I was hoping to learn and I was just hoping to be in a beautiful place that there's nowhere else like it in the world.
KUCB: So what's next?
LESTER: What’s next? I'm going to go back to Boston where I'm from and I'm going to check in on my parents. And then, eventually, I'm going to Berkeley Law in the fall, but unclear if there will be classes online or if anything will be happening, but I'll be mourning the loss of my beautiful Unalaska the whole time.
KUCB: So what was your initial impression of Unalaska? And how has that changed since you've been here over the last three months?
LESTER: Wow, well, honestly when I came here first. I was imagining that it would be something like Sitka. And I was totally wrong about that. But I used to live in Sitka and I figured, two rural Alaskan islands can't be that different from each other, but they are. But I love it. I think I've been so impressed by the community and how people have been trying so hard to take care of each other. To hold each other accountable too, which is impressive, while trying to be as kind as possible. And I think also I came here at probably one of the weirdest times ever to be on this island. And I really wish I had been here at a time when I could have gone to more community events and see people in all their wonderful Unalaska glory. But it still has been a really amazing way to see how generous and dedicated so many people here are to make sure everybody is okay.
KUCB: Shortly after you got here, things kind of went crazy. What was that like for you, being in such a new place, in such a small community where you didn't really know anybody?
LESTER: Honestly, it was definitely super hard for a little bit because my family was in New York and Boston, where it's the center. And it was terrifying, but I was so touched and impressed by the people around me who reached out to make sure I was okay, even just with teeny-weeny little things, like a text. It meant a lot. And it made me a little bit less scared.
KUCB: You can take two things away from this experience. One of them, you get to keep forever, you'll never forget it. The other one, you have to wad that thing up, throw it away, and forget about it—never come back to it. What are those two things or experiences?
LESTER: I would keep my people, and I would throw away the difficulty of recording interviews with rough cell phone service and no professional recording device.
KUCB: When you talk to your friends and your family after you leave, what's going to be your favorite, or your go-to story to share about Unalaska?
LESTER: I think one of the very strange and hard things about corona-times is that all we have are our daily routines and a very small circle of people that are within it. And in some ways when I think about my time here, it sort of blends. But I think when I describe it, it's walks with my people, being in a beautiful place that looks like nowhere else. It's like hearing the wind. It's like lying in bed at night and hearing the house shake and being sort of excited about that. It's all of these beautiful little moments that feel so vivid. But there are no stories because we're not doing anything.
KUCB: Is there anything that you want to share about your experience with the community?
LESTER: I just want to say thank you. Thank you so much for allowing me to come in and to talk to all of you. And to be in this position.