New Nikiski grad eyes life outside peninsula

Posted: Friday, May 25, 2001

Editor's note: This is the last in a series of four profiles of seniors from the central Kenai Peninsula.

Ella Olsen has lived in Alaska since she was 2. But in a week she will get on a plane and head out for the wider world.

Olsen picked up her diploma Monday from Nikiski Middle-Senior High School. The event capped a busy four years. As the president of the senior class, she found herself an active as well as passive participant in that grand finale.

"I had no idea how much work it was going to be," she said of her student council post.

"But we had a lot of fun. It was fun kind of stress stuff. ... It was nice to be involved. It was nice to watch the process of graduation and help out."

School has always played a big role in Olsen's life because her mother, Judy Shields, is a teacher. Her father, Stephen Olsen, works at Big G Electric.

It was teaching that brought the family to Alaska from Oregon, where Ella was born. She spent her early childhood in the Bush, living in Teller and Unalakleet before moving to Nikiski for second grade.

She attended Nikiski Elementary School, where her mother now teaches. At the middle and high school, she ran cross country and was active in student council, yearbook and classes.

Olsen got the travel bug early, heading off when she was in sixth grade to visit relatives in Oregon. She set off not with her parents but with her best friend, Kayla Feltman. The duo subsequently went to Arizona together, too.

"If I'm not traveling with my family, I'm with her," Olsen explained.

But their grandest venture was a school trip to Europe their sophomore year. She said it whetted her appetite to see more of the world.

Another school event that had a big influence on her plans was the 2000 Mock Political Convention teacher Bob Bird organized at the school.

Olsen was part of the "media crew" for the event, which dramatized the national presidential race for students. Her job included interviewing "delegates" and others.

"I thought it was really fun," she said.

She developed a strong interest in media and journalism. Her favorite classes were audiovisual communications and yearbook. Senior year she was the yearbook editor. She said she developed a special rapport with the teacher, Carla Jenness, whom she had for two periods a day both junior and senior years.

"She became one of my best friends at the school and helped me through a lot of things," Olsen said of Jenness.

In return, Jenness praised Olsen as a mature, considerate and hard-working student. She described her as the kind of person who steps forward without fanfare to get a job done.

"She is real genuine," Jenness said. "She can be a lot more of a grown-up than the other kids. ... She is more together."

Olsen plans to pursue her journalism and media interests into college and has chosen to attend Christopher Newport University in Virginia. She described it as a small school near many sites of interest. She chose it because she has relatives in Virginia, likes the area and got a good feeling at the school.

"I liked the atmosphere," she said. "It really appealed to me."

But Olsen is not waiting until fall to expand her horizons. In summers past and after school she has worked at Charlotte's Restaurant in Kenai and at a Nikiski day care center. But this summer she is heading off to Portland, Ore.

"I'm just going to live with my grandma for something different to try," she explained.

Trying something different is a theme that comes up again and again speaking with Olsen, who bubbles with enthusiasm for traveling, studying and meeting people. She wants to explore and knows it is too early to predict where life's road will take her.

She noted that Sen. Ted Stevens, who spoke to the Nikiski students at commencement, invited the young men and women to see the world, but encouraged them to return to Alaska after exploring.

"I say I'll never come back," she said. "But you never know."

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