by Sally Russell
The University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Rural and Community Development (UAF CRCD) Kuskokwim Campus (KuC) held its forty-fourth commencement ceremony at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel on Thursday, May 3, 2018. The afternoon ceremony honored sixty-seven graduates from thirty-five different Alaskan communities.
A qaspeq-clad KuC faculty filed in to the music of traditional Yup’ik drumming by KuC student Panuk Agimuk and the graduates processed up the aisle to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” by sister pianists Miriam and Caroline Hessler.
KuC Director Mary Pete introduced distinguished guests Evon Peter (Vice Chancellor for Rural, Community, and Native Education) and Karen Perdue (UA Regent), followed by an invocation by Bethel Moravian Pastor Timothy Samson.
Director Pete introduced the keynote speaker, Esther Green, program elder and co-instructor for the Rural Human Services and Human Services programs. Ms. Green spoke movingly about how to make the formal educational system work for indigenous people, using the Rural Human Services program as an example. She said treating students as whole people in a collaborative classroom and helping them explore every area of their lives as they progress on their healing and educational journeys gives them confidence and helps them take risks and accept where they came from. She wondered what it would be like if every classroom discovered this model of learning, even K-12. She said that what we learn is not a possession to keep for ourselves, but must be shared with our people and our community.
Amy Lekanof spoke as the associate degree student speaker. Ms. Lekanof is Tlingit and a Human Services graduate who said she has grown personally and professionally in her social work program. She thanked her teachers, elders, classmates, husband (“my greatest adventure”) and children (who ate ice cream and other mother-banned food when she was at Human Services intensives). Her advice to fellow graduates was to “step up” and empower others to become leaders, not followers.
Lillian Kiunya of Kwigillingok was chosen as the baccalaureate student speaker. Ms. Kiunya said her reason for becoming a social worker was seeing all the turnover of social workers who came from outside the region, and she encouraged her classmates to persevere and become “local grown” social workers. She said that what we learn from our elders doesn’t belong to us, but is meant to be passed on to the younger generation, and that the more you know the more you learn what you do not know.
Director Pete began the degree ceremony by acknowledging eight students who earned Occupational Endorsements as Nurse Aides. Ten Community Health Practitioner Certificates were then honored by Asela Calhoun, Director of Community Health Aide Program and Education at YKHC, and Linda Curda, Associate Professor of Community Health, and degrees awarded by Director Pete.
KuC is the only UA campus offering a certificate in Ethnobotany, a program which studies the traditional use of plants by Native Alaskan people, and Director Pete awarded five Ethnobotany certificates to students from as far away as Hawaii.
Dr. Diane McEachern, Associate Professor of Rural Human Services and Human Services, assisted in handing out flowers and certificates to twenty-four Rural Human Service graduates. Associate and bachelor’s degrees were then awarded by the distinguished panel, including Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education Veronica Plumb. Twenty-six students earned AAS or AA degrees in Applied Accounting, Human Services, General Studies, or Early Childhood Education, and two earned bachelor’s degrees, one in Social Work and the other in Elementary Education.
University of Alaska Regent Karen Perdue formally conferred degrees on the graduates, who moved their tassels from the right to the left side of their caps, symbolizing completion of this stage of education and commencement of a new beginning. Led by Panuk Agimuk, the KuC Yuraq group performed for the graduation crowd.
Closing remarks were made by Regent Perdue who stated that this has been her favorite University of Alaska graduation ceremony.
Joli Morgan, Emeritus UAF/KuC Professor, closed the ceremony with a beautiful benediction from “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan. Director Pete invited all guests to stay for a reception for the graduates.