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Gretchen Towne Bersch has dedicated her life to adult and continuing education. In addition to creating the master’s degree in Adult Education at the University of Alaska Anchorage, she worked on the Adult Literacy Lab Project, coordinated the Credit for Prior Learning program, co-created the UAA/Magadan student exchange program with the International Pedagogical University in Magadan Russia, where she was awarded an honorary professorship and also established and funded an Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award that continues today. Bersch also worked tirelessly to assist the people of Magadan through an extremely harsh winter when their lives were at risk from cold and hunger.
Bersch was nominated for the Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation and received the Edith R. Bullock Prize for Excellence, a statewide honor through the University of Alaska Foundation (1996). She was a U.S. representative for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations’ conference on adult learning held in Germany in 1997. She co-chaired Operation Magadan, a humanitarian relief effort that resulted in 30,000 pounds of warm clothing, blankets, baby formula and 16,000 boxes of food being sent to the residents of Magadan during a particularly difficult winter in 1998. In 2006 the adult education collection in the Consortium Library at UAA was named for her, and in 2007 she was appointed to the Sister Cities Commission by the mayor of Anchorage. In 2008, in conjunction with a UNESCO meeting in Budapest, Hungary, Bersch was one of 11 international educators inducted into the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame.
Born in Berkeley, California, Bersch is the oldest of six and comes from a lineage of heroic women. Her great-great-grandmother was one of three who started the Oregon Women’s Suffrage Association in 1870 and her grandmother served on the Seattle City Council for 20 years, still the longest-serving woman to have served on this council. Her mother, “a tomboy by nature, was a very strong woman who raised her children to be strong and independent,” Bersch said.
After graduating from Homer High School in 1962, Bersch attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, for two years, then transferred to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She completed her Bachelor of Science degree in General Science and Mathematics in 1967, married and started a family.
Bersch began her career in education teaching math and science to 7th and 8th graders. During this time, she had the opportunity to teach adults GED classes at night, which sparked her interest and career in adult education. In 1971 she moved to the village of Kaltag on the Yukon River and became a faculty member at what was then Anchorage Community College. From Kaltag, she moved to Goodnews Bay then, in 1972, to Anchorage.
Bersch earned a master’s degree in Secondary Education from UAA in 1973 and developed a series of pedagogical and curriculum materials on adult education that she used in rural villages to train teachers in adult education. She served on the ACC Institutional Planning Committee and was co-chair of the ACC/UAA Academic Curriculum Policy Board, which was responsible for successfully merging the community college into UAA. Bersch also served on UAA’s Program Assessment Committee and the Academic Affairs Task Force.
At the age of 40, Bersch took a year-long sabbatical to begin a Ph.D. program in Adult Education from Florida State University. She returned to Anchorage to continue her work as a faculty member at UAA and received her Ph.D. in 1990. It was after earning her doctoral degree that Bersch developed the UAA/Magadan student exchange program and began pursuing other interests. Those interests included developing an educational retreat center and – what she considers to be her life contribution to the field of adult education – a series of filmed interviews with 80 of the world’s top scholars in the field of adult education. These interviews are titled: Conversations on Lifelong Learning. To date, 40 of these interviews have been made into DVD programs.
Bersch fully retired from the university in 2006 and continues her legacy in adult education by organizing adult education activities through her learning retreat center at her family’s homestead on Yukon Island. She serves on the Opportunities for Lifelong Education (Olé!) board. She continues to work on completing the Conversations on Lifelong Learning project and is currently writing a book with colleagues around the country about women who were involved in the early development of adult education. Bersch has provided inspiration to the recipients of the Magadan Teacher of the Year Award to each write a chapter of a book about best practices in teaching and she has funded the publication. The book is written in Russian and is soon to be released. On a more personal note, she is writing vignettes for her grandchildren about her family lineage and will become a great-grandmother in June. Reflecting on her career in adult education, Bersch explained, “If there is one thing I would like to do, it is to break down the barriers and fear of learning.”