Alexis Wheeler woke before the sun. She climbed out of bed, put on her boots and Carhartt overalls. This was her second day in Wyoming. Wheeler stepped outside into the minus-thirty-degree air, a serrated coldness that steals the breath. The ground crunched underneath her feet as Wheeler walked to the river and began pounding the ice with a hammer to make a hole so the cows could drink.
This was 2009. A few months prior, Wheeler had graduated from Harvard Law School. “I graduated right in the middle of the recession,” she said. “My start date at a law firm got pushed back so I had some time on my hands.” Wheeler belonged to the Harvard Outing Club. The club got an invitation every year from a Harvard alumnus who owned a ranch in Wyoming and was looking for ranch hands. “I thought, ‘Maybe they’ll need some help in the winter.’”
Wheeler stayed on the ranch for two months. During this time she learned how to drive a tractor, operate a hay feeder, care for newborn calves, and build fences. “The boots were thick, for which I’m grateful because the rancher had an electric fence, and I didn’t realize I was routinely grabbing the live part until one day he spotted me and shouted ‘no, don’t!’” Perplexed, the rancher asked Wheeler if she felt anything. Wheeler paused before acknowledging a slight tingling in her arms. Turned out the rubber-soled boots protected against more than cacti and cold, they also insulated against daily shocks.
Wheeler’s sojourn to Wyoming may seem an odd choice for a trained lawyer, but the narrative fits easily into her larger life story. The Bellevue native holds a history degree from the University of Washington's Seattle campus. Wheeler later earned a master’s from the University of Westminster in England. She’s also traveled to 41 countries. The actual number of countries in the world is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. However, the United Nation puts the number at 195. Based on that metric, Wheeler has visited about 1/5 of the countries on the planet.
Lessons Learned Along the Way by Alexis Wheeler
Dodging pedestrians with “Rusty” – her reddish rolling bag with detachable daypack – in tow, Alexis Wheeler hurried toward London’s Victoria Coach Station. Wheeler had redeemed her airline miles for a free seat on a cheap flight out of Amsterdam, but first she had to get there. Running late, Wheeler feared she’d miss the bus from London to Amsterdam. She hurried to the station only to find herself waiting as mechanics repaired the bus. Travel Lesson #1: Be ready to hurry up and wait.
The bus careened down the deserted highway toward Dover, rushing to make the ferry to Calais. The driver raced across northern France, recovering lost time and raising Wheeler’s hopes that she might yet make her flight. Entering the outskirts of Brussels, Wheeler was now only an hour behind schedule. Then, the alarm began to blare. The driver said nothing and no one asked about the noise as the bus sought the shelter of the central station for five more minutes before finally pulling over. The repair had failed, the engine temperature gauge climbing rapidly from alarming orange to critical red. Travel Lesson #2: Roll with the punches.
With less than four hours until takeoff, Wheeler snatched Rusty from the bus’s undercarriage and sprinted the final six blocks. There was one Amsterdam-bound Eurostar train that could complete the trip to Schiphol Airport, so Wheeler begrudgingly purchased the last (First Class) rail ticket. The Eurostar was departing in 30 minutes, not from Brussels Central, but from Brussels South. Wheeler shoved her remaining Euros in a nearby ticket dispenser, never knowing if she’d paid the proper fare, and jumped on the first southbound city tram, which - her one stroke of luck - happened to be an express. She made it to the station with minutes to spare and rode the Eurostar to the airport in Amsterdam. By noon, she was somewhere over the Atlantic. Travel Lesson #3: Plans Change
Wheeler’s parents cultivated her natural curiosity. At the age of eight, Wheeler accompanied her father to London. “My dad got me a history book, and I started leafing through it backwards, admiring the big, puffy 18th- and 19th-century dresses I’d come to expect from Disney films," she said. "However, as I flipped back into earlier eras, the fashions changed and I began to wonder about these people who were neither Flintstones nor fairytale princesses. That led me down the path of exploring history in middle school and high school.”
In 2002 Wheeler graduated from Newport High School in Bellevue. She started at UW the following autumn. During the four years Wheeler spent working on a bachelor’s degree, she participated in several study abroad programs — two to Rome and one to South Africa. “I knew early on that I wanted to experience all of the major cultures and areas that had a significant historical impact,” she said. “Things in the Seattle area are relatively new, and there’s something about going places with thousand-year-old structures.”
The desire to explore only intensified after Wheeler earned her history degree. In the years between then and now she’s backpacked through Europe, visited the ancient city of Petra in Jordan and toured the pyramids in Egypt, among other places. “The more you travel, the more you learn to roll with the punches,” said Wheeler.
There are a myriad of experiences, moments of humor or of confusion that come when one strikes out beyond the familiar. Wheeler has a handful of favorites, including a trip to Naples she took with friends. “Not a lot of people in that area spoke English,” she said. “I had a friend who was originally from Taiwan; she spoke Mandarin and that’s how we ended up getting around. We’d go to Chinese restaurants in the city and all the wait staff spoke Mandarin. We’d eat and then get directions which we used to navigate Southern Italy.”
This collected wisdom is invaluable to the work Wheeler does as a program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement and its Global Honors Program. Wheeler was drawn to her position by the programmatic mission: “to connect the classroom to the world.”
A key component of Global Honors is student engagement. By supporting the IGE’s Student Engagement Program (SEP), Wheeler connects students to local businesses and non-profits with a multinational or global footprint. “In the past we’ve taken students to meet with local organizations with a global reach, including MOD Pizza and the Port of Tacoma,” she said. “The meeting with the Port turned out to be a great networking opportunity. One of the students was interested in the Foreign Service and one of the executives in attendance had a friend who worked in the Foreign Service, and they were able to connect.”
Wheeler also works to get students thinking about research opportunities. “I meet with students and we bounce around ideas to find out what they’re interested in pursuing,” she said. Many of the students in Global Honors are interested in attending graduate school and Wheeler serves as a de facto resource adviser. “We want to get them thinking about what they need to do as soon as possible,” she said.
Access is a key component of UW Tacoma’s mission and Wheeler says this extends to Global Honors. “In my view, honors programs like the one we have are vigilant about building an inclusive community,” she said. Wheeler speaks from experience. Applying to the UW with limited financial resources, she found “the University Honors Program [on the Seattle campus] provided scholarships that made going to college a lot easier.”
Alexis Wheeler has a map pinned to her office wall. The map is color coded and there isn’t a part of the map that isn’t either yellow, green, orange or pink. “Yellow is where I’ve lived, green is where I’ve been, orange is where I want to go and pink is where I have to go,” she said. “No matter where I go, the Puget Sound area draws me back every time.”
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or email@example.com