Degrees conferred at KuC’s 2023 Commencement

Florencia Ayagak Barrera of Bethel graduated at KuC's Commencement on May 2nd, 2023 receiving her Certificate in Rural Human Services. With her is her daughter Svea, also in cap and gown. Photo by Kelly Lincoln

by Amy Howard

On a snowy afternoon, May 2, 2023, graduating students of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskokwim Campus (KuC) gathered to be recognized and receive their diplomas.

After Maurice Nanalook drummed in the dignitaries and faculty, pianist Emily Emery played Pomp and Circumstance as the graduates filed into the Cultural Center filled with family and friends.

After a welcome and introductions by Carolyn Goolsby, Director of KuC, Orutsararmiut Native Council Traditional Chief Louie Andrew gave the invocation. Mr. Andrew received his Associate of Arts degree in the first KuC graduating class in 1975. The invocation was followed by the presentation of the colors by JROTC color guard members from Bethel Regional High School.

Charlene Stern, Vice Chancellor for Rural, Community, and Native Education at UAF, addressed the students saying, “You all are the heartbeats of this institution, and why we do what we do every day.” She acknowledged the hard work that each graduate put in over the course of their studies, noting the difficulty of balancing life, school, and family. Stern encouraged the graduates to blaze a trail for all who come after them.

Chancellor Dan White followed her remarks by thanking the Elders for sharing traditional values with the students. He said he was “honored to see the spectrum of graduates … a representation of the cultural and educational richness of this region.” The University is

committed to KuC and KuC’s mission, he stated.

Chancellor White then introduced University President Pat Pitney, who is not only the University’s President, but an Olympic gold medalist, the first woman air rifle national champion in the United States. Pitney told the graduates that, “the impact you graduates will have on your communities is untold, and is just beginning.” She brought home the importance of the University’s community campuses by saying, “the access our community campuses provide for changing our communities cannot be underestimated.” President Pitney challenged the graduates to find a young person and inspire them to take this journey as well.

Director Goolsby introduced Keynote Speaker Nuyailnguq Rose Domnick as a “true knowledge bearer of Indigenous history.” After addressing the crowd in Yugtun, Domnick spoke of her early childhood in St. Mary’s.

Growing up, she was taught that her native language was a hindrance to success. She hopes that students will utilize their college education in conjunction with their ancestral values to do great things in their communities.

“Every culture has gifts of wisdom that can be used to make the world a better place. Ours included.”

The 2023 student addresses were given by Diane Isailgaq Hlansy of Anchorage, Natalia Kitsick of Kotlik, Haley Hanson of Bethel, and Angass’aq Sally Samson of Nunapitchuk/Bethel.

Hlansy’s pride shone through as she spoke of completing her Associate of Applied Sciences degree saying, “Today I am with my people, in my hometown, celebrating this wonderful day.”

Hlansy’s path to higher education began in 1992. Many years later she entered the Rural Human Services (RHS) program at KuC. She found herself in a supportive and welcoming environment full of people from all over Alaska. “Native people are natural healers,” she said.

“This program enhances Native people’s already innate skill of healing.”

Natalia Kitsick’s education began in her hometown of Kotlik. She recalled that back then, being both a student and parent wasn’t something she ever expected. However, she persevered and worked hard, graduating with her Bachelor of Arts degree. She enjoys learning and the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing projects and assignments.

Haley Hanson was born and raised in Bethel and began her higher education in the UAF system about 10 years ago. When speaking of achieving her Master of Arts degree in Rural Development, Hanson said, “Twenty-three-year-old me would be proud.” She thanked her advisor Cathy Brooks and reminded everyone that it’s never too late to begin their journey to fulfill their dreams.

Sally Samson’s mother was her early inspiration; she valued education even though she never had a formal education herself. She taught herself to read and write, and Sally remembers her reading the New Testament and writing letters to her other children who were away at school. Going away to attend college is very difficult, but Sally said you can accomplish this with the support of family, friends, advisors and instructors. Working in the schools to keep the Yup’ik language and culture alive is very important.

Director Goolsby presented certificates and degrees to the thirty-seven graduates.

Graduates included four Occupational Endorsements, twelve Certificates, eight Associate degrees, five Baccalaureate degrees, one Master’s degree, and two Doctor of Philosophy degrees.

The Class of 2023 included four KuC employees: Nicholai Joekay, College Success Coordinator; Haley Hanson, Allied Health/RRANN Advisor; Marie Friday, College Success Navigator; and Angass’aq Sally Samson, Assistant Professor of Yup’ik Language and Culture.

Master’s recipient Haley Hanson was hooded by Cathy Brooks, Associate Professor of the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development at UAF. Keggutailnguq Catherine Moses and Angass’aq Sally Samson both received their Doctor of Philosophy degrees, each having completed thesis studies related to Yugtun language and literacy. Dr. Sabine Siekmann, Associate Professor of Linguistics at UAF, and Dr. Joan Parker Webster, Ed.D., retired Associate Professor of Education, assisted with their hoodings.

KuC also recognized both a part-time and full-time Student of the Year. Brianna Akagalria Norton from Nunapitchuk received the Part-Time Student of the Year award, and Felicia Canaar Daniel of Bethel received the Full-Time Student of the Year award.

As the graduates stood after receiving their diplomas, Regent Paula Harrison of the University of Alaska Board of Regents conferred their degrees. Baccalaureate and Associate degree candidates changed their tassels from the right side of their caps to the left. After a celebratory performance by the Ayaprun Dancers, Mr. Andrew said the benediction and congratulated the graduates. A reception with cake and punch followed the ceremony.

Kuskokwim Campus congratulates all of the 2023 graduates.

Amy Howard is the Wellness Activities Coordinator/JV for the Kuskowkim Campus.