by Katie Rearden
The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) College of Rural and Community Development (CRCD) Kuskokwim Campus (KuC) held its forty-sixth (2020) and forty-seventh (2021) commencement ceremony virtually on Friday, April 30, 2021.
The afternoon ceremony honored 116 students who achieved certificates, degrees, and awards from 51 Alaskan communities, five states, and Canada. 22 Certificates, 24 Associate Degrees, and 9 Bachelor Degrees were awarded for 2020, and 34 Certificates, 22 Associate Degrees, and 5 Bachelor Degrees were awarded for 2021.
UAF College of Rural and Community Development (CRCD) KuC Acting Director, Linda Curda, began the event with a warm welcome and then introduced the distinguished guest, Dr. Charlene Stern, UAF Interim Vice Chancellor for CRCD Rural Community and Native Education.
Interim Vice Chancellor Stern has deep roots in rural Alaska and is very proud to have a post-secondary education system that students can access from wherever they live. She spent many years pursuing her education and was the first of five siblings to graduate through the support of her family and the broader community. She spoke of the first native Alaskan to graduate from college, John Fredson, who was from her home community of Arctic Village. He attended Sewanee, The University of the South, in Tennessee during the 1930s before returning to Alaska and making invaluable contributions to our communities. She explained that each graduate is part of that legacy and that achieving educational goals is a fantastic personal and professional accomplishment and a win for all of us. When rural and Alaska Native students succeed, it benefits the university, our communities, and our state. In closing, she wished the deepest and most heartfelt congratulations to each of the graduates and hoped they enjoyed the well-deserved happiness and joy that the day brings.
Linda Curda introduced the keynote speaker, Gloria June Simeon, who earned a Certificate in Ethnobotany to add to her BA in Rural Development. Gloria grew up with a subsistence life and learned that plants were food, medicine, or poison. She participated in plant identification at KuC and realized that she was knowledgeable in medicinal food. She later found herself dreading the dark time and prayed hard for a passion in her life. A turning point came on November 9, 2007, when the late Mary Ciuniq Pete, then KuC Director, and Rose Meier, Ethnobotany (EBOT) Faculty, approached her with the opportunity to expand the breadth and depth of her knowledge by learning about plants in Hawaii with Dr. Ingelia White. When asked why she had chosen her, Mary Ciuniq Pete said she knew Gloria would succeed. It took fourteen years to complete her certificate, Dr. White remains a legend in her home, and she learned several lessons along the way.
As a child, she was given a cup when berry picking because grandmas and moms knew not to give adult-sized containers to children. Working to obtain her BA in RD and then on to an EBOT Certificate, she needed that little cup versus a bigger one to avoid feeling overwhelmed. She would have given up if she knew how far ahead that prize was to bring her to that next level. It took time and perseverance to obtain the award of akutaq for life.
Gloria advises students to believe in themselves. She said she has been rewarded by gaining knowledge, and a teacher has always appeared when she was ready. She says that each day brings choices to make a difference and encourages students to look at opportunities to move up and bring someone with them. Lastly, she expressed a big thank you to Lisa Strecker, Ethnobotany Faculty, and Dr. White.
Linda Curda introduced Katheryn Nina Kiktugiak Nenneman, Bachelor’s degree student speaker.
Katheryn reflected that this is a day of celebration of the time, effort, and sacrifices taken to achieve certificates, degrees, and earn awards. This year has been an extremely tough year with surviving a global pandemic through loss, fear, anxiety, but we have proven to be resourceful and resilient. She graduated from Bethel and went out of state but was not ready for college mentally. She had no connections and felt lost. When she came home for the summer, she realized her roots were here. She had a career that she loved and realized that she needed to go to school, so she enrolled at KuC. Joli Morgan, Mr. Updegrove, Ben Kuntz, Dr. Vallerie Warren, and Dr. Diane McEachern are just a few of the local faculty who made a difference. It was not always easy balancing work and school, but she persisted. The Rural Human Services program uses Indigenous teaching modalities and she was in awe of the transition that she saw in herself and her classmates. Elders were always present and powerful in their ability to say the most beautiful things in a relevant way.
Katheryn encourages everyone to have the curiosity to learn and points out that attending a trade school is just as important as attending college. She wants parents to know that resources are there; just ask. Be the change you want to see. She thanked AVCP and YKHC for mentoring her and all UAF and KuC faculty and staff for supporting her. To Drs. McEachern, Bettisworth, and Demientieff–her words can’t express her gratitude. She thanked her parents, sister, husband, children, and her friends and ended with a quote from K.T. Whitten – “Dreams don’t have an expiration date, take a deep breath and try again.”
Acting Director Linda Curda and Sheri Buretta, chair of the University of Alaska Board of Regents, conferred degrees on the graduates: 46 Associate degrees and 14 Bachelor’s degrees. The graduates were instructed to move 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.
Distinguished awards were announced as follows:
Full-time Student of the year award for 2020 to Danielle Epchook who has completed her AA degree, Cum Laude.
Part-time Student of the year award for 2020 to Chelsea Hoffman who is working towards her degree in social work.
Full time student of the year for 2021 is Amber Evan who earned her AA degree and has encouraged other students: “Even if you hit bumps and your instinct is to stop, just keep going.”
Part time student of the year for 2021 is Deborah Michael who earned her BA of Social Work degree. She credits her success to the holistic and culturally relevant nature of the RHS program. She says “I can bring my whole self.”
Ester Nuqaq’aq Green earned the Meritorious Service Award. For the past 15 years, Ester has provided cultural grounding to adult Indigenous students in the RHS, HUMS, AAS, BSW programs. Her contributions have included course content and student support, all through the lens of a Yup’ik Elder. Ester expressed thanks and said she felt so humble, never imagined she would be recognized for something that she loves to do. She hopes more elders will be in college classrooms, stating that her wish is for all university classrooms to be like this.
Willie Kasayulie from Akiachuk earned an Honorary Doctor of Education. Willie has had a long and distinguished career promoting the health and welfare of indigenous people thorough service, activism, advocacy, and reform.
The 2020 Distinguished Teaching Usibelli Award was presented outside of the graduation event to Dr. Diane McEachern, associate professor at UAF KuC, recognizing her application of cross-cultural understanding to her teaching approach. Dr. McEachern also received acknowledgement of her achievements by the State of Alaska 31st Legislature.
The Chancellor of UAF, Dan White, offered the closing remarks saying that this has been a difficult year and challenging time but it is one that each graduate has succeeded in. He said that what is unique among UAF rural campus commencements is the community pride in each graduate. Whatever the journey that brought graduates here today, many people helped and there is pride in the hearts of those helping hands. Chancellor White thanked the family and friends that helped graduates get here today. He shares pride in the accomplishments. On behalf of everyone at UAF, he wished the graduates of 2020 and 2021 success in the future as UAF alumni.
Linda Curda concluded the event saying that another word for graduation is commencement, which means to begin. She stated, “I invite you to put the past aside and work for today and the future for the vision you want. The work you do is critical for the wellbeing of your people, the region and your individual communities. Thank you all and congratulations to our graduates of 2020 and 2021.”
Katie Rearden is the Assistant Director at the Kuskokwim Campus.