Sienna Houtte: A Roaming Spirit
Sienna Houtte '06 has a roaming spirit, one that took her to many foreign lands during her childhood and continues to guide her as an adult. She has lived on a boat in the Bahamas, studied at a university in Japan, and now, through a national grant from the Fulbright Program for U.S. Students, she will teach English to children in Taiwan.
"I think study abroad gave me the travel bug," she says. "I wanted to go abroad and learn a new language when I graduated."
But behind the roaming spirit, Houtte has a definite purpose, and it's not just to learn about people of other cultures. It is to interact with them, teach them about her way of life and help them adjust when they land on American soil. This spring, she mentored students from the Tokyo International University of America, many of whom she had met while studying in Tokyo last year. It's hard to sit with Houtte on campus without hearing numerous Japanese students say "Hi, Sienna" as they walk by.
Houtte's grant from Fulbright, a program that allows Americans to study and do research in other countries, will take her to Taiwan for a year. Her interest in East Asian culture -- she majored in international studies with a focus on East Asia and Japan -- stretches back to high school, when she discovered that her hometown of Palmer, Alaska, was the sister city of Saroma, Japan.
But Houtte's experience with other lands came long before that. When she was 11, her parents sold their woodworking business in Florida to move to Alaska. But before going, they wanted to spend more quality time with their two children, and so the family relocated to a 48-foot sloop and spent 6½ months sailing around the Bahamas.
They lived on the boat, traveling around the Berry Islands, the Exumas and others, stopping along the way so Houtte and her younger sister could explore the beaches and caves they found. They ate the fish they caught -- mostly grouper and snapper -- and the two children were home-schooled. Houtte's lessons often would relate to the adventures of the day. She would go diving with her dad, then come back and make a book about how fish live. "When I was 11, I was running our outboard motor by myself," Houtte says. "It showed me a lot about how learning isn't just restricted to the classroom."
In high school, Houtte went to Japan through a student exchange program, and her first roommate in Baxter Hall at Willamette was a Japanese student. Her love for Asian culture grew, and when she studied there last year, she became intimate with it, preferring the smaller villages to the big city of Tokyo. "In the rural areas, there's such a strong tradition, particularly relating to agriculture, which I find fascinating. There's just such a rich culture that you don't find many places in America."
Houtte chose Taiwan for her Fulbright trip partly because she wanted to improve her Chinese. She already speaks conversational French and Japanese, and the official language in Taiwan is Mandarin. Houtte has been assigned to teach English to elementary school students in I-lan County, an area with strong agricultural roots, nestled between craggy mountains and the ocean.
"I think that'll be great," she says of working with the little ones. "You have more of an opportunity to make an impact, and I'm hoping to give them a positive impression of English so they'll want to keep learning it."
Plus, she hopes to use the experience to return to Alaska and interact with yet another culture: the Alaskan natives. Many of the indigenous tribes live in the Alaska Bush -- the isolated parts of the state not accessible by roads -- in areas that suffer from high turnover among teachers, Houtte says. Villages there lure teachers with high-paid positions, but the teachers leave because of the harshness of the lifestyle.
The result is that many Alaska natives struggle in school, and Houtte wants that to change. "The academic performance of many of these students is really low, and that's something I've been looking at and would like to improve."
It may seem ironic that with all her international travels, Houtte's ultimate goal is to return to her home. But for a roamer of Houtte's sort -- one who lets her surroundings shape her as much as she shapes them -- home is just as good a place as any.