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By DANELLE LANDIS
Daily News Staff Writer
The University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan campus held its 2019 commencement ceremony for 16 graduates from Ketchikan, Metlakatla, Petersburg and Washington state on Saturday afternoon in the Ted Ferry Civic Center.
More than 50 family members, friends and supporters waved, smiled and snapped photos as nine of the graduates proceeded up the middle aisle in black gowns and caps to the “Pomp and Circumstance” march.
Presenters sat on the stage, facing the crowd.
As the faculty members, also in their formal gowns and caps, settled in their seats, followed by the nine graduates, the music quieted. A child’s urgent whisper called out “Daddy!” when she spied her father.
Campus Director and Director of Ceremonies Priscilla Schulte welcomed attendees and introduced UAS Southeast Chancellor Richard Caulfield, who first welcomed the audience in the Tlingit language, followed by English.
He next addressed the unique accomplishments of the UAS graduates.
“Many of our students have faced significant challenges in their lives, but still they persevere,” he said. “So, graduates, we’re proud of you, and we’re excited to see where life takes you now.”
Caulfield introduced commencement speaker Amanda Pierce, who is the executive officer for Southern Southeast Alaska Building Industry Association, as well as a member of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly.
“Amanda Pierce’s family has been in Ketchikan for four generations, although much of her childhood was spent in North Carolina, due to her father’s Coast Guard career,” Caulfield said, adding, “Amanda holds three degrees, an associate in General Motors automotive service, a Bachelor of Science in business management, and a master’s degree in business administration.”
Pierce welcomed the graduates to a “great afternoon,” as she settled at the podium.
“Look at you. You have arrived,” she began. “Whether this degree is a new career, or forging a path to your future, your sacrifices and dedication have brought you to the finish line.”
She emphasized the uniqueness of each graduate and of the paths that they might take.
“Sometimes, it may take awhile to find the path that you were meant to cut,” she said, “but it is there for you to find.”
She then clarified that each path was not a pre-made one, but one for each graduate to blaze with their own efforts, saying that cutting one’s own path requires “patience, trust, faith and hard work,” and definitely not luck.
“I was taught early that hard work pays off,” Pierce said.
She explained that her own journey of cutting her personal path began in high school, when she wanted to take a class that never had previously enrolled a female student. The principal barred her from taking the class, but she persevered until a new principal allowed her to enroll.
“I went on to be the first female graduate from General Motors automotive co-op program in Goldsborough, North Carolina, graduating in Sept. 11, 2002,” she said.
“Those first swipes with my trail-cutting ax had been taken,” she said. “I could not clearly see where I was going, but I had started a journey that would require many steps of personal faith and perseverance.”
She advised the graduates, “Do not be afraid to be true to yourself and take the steps, that for others, may seem to be heading off into the wilderness.”
She added that heading “into the wilderness” would not be without risks, and the sacrifices and hard work they’d already accomplished to earn their degrees were commendable.
She then exhorted the students to reach out for support as they continued to blaze their paths.
“Those standing with you in celebration today are your tribe,” she said. “Making tough decisions — it’s part of life — we all have to do it, but we don’t have to do it alone. Find someone that you can trust, to help work out those details. To add to your tribe. There’s always someone or something out there that’s available to offer their skills and ax sharpening. Being humble enough to ask for help is the hard part.”
She wrapped up with a quote from comedian Ellen DeGeneres: “Follow your passion, stay true to yourself, never follow anyone else’s path. Unless you’re lost and you’re in the woods: Follow that path.”
Two graduates, Margaret Baca of Ketchikan, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education; and Orin Pierson, of Petersburg, who earned a Bachelor of Liberal Arts cum laude, were honored as Outstanding Graduates.
Pierson took the podium to give the student address. Caulfield had earlier introduced him, outlining Pierson’s history in Petersburg, where he “worked for Icicle Seafoods, he’s written for the Petersburg Pilot newspaper, and he now serves as development director for the Petersburg community radio station.”
“I feel very proud of all my classmates,” Pierson said. “This is an amazing thing to achieve.”
Echoing Pierce’s message, he said that the journey of earning a degree involves effort from not only the individual, but from a broader base of support.
“It is a phenomenal individual effort, but perhaps one of the most important perks of living in a small town, like most of us do, is that we can’t really ignore all the people connected to us,” he said. “We see them and they see us. I’m beginning to appreciate all the subtle ways my community has powered me across this finish line.”
He shared his experiences with his landlord, as an example, who in many small ways has been a crucial part of his “team” as he worked full time while working late to complete his coursework.
“It’s that compassion and that hospitality that has been such an important part of helping me reach this degree,” he said.
“It’s the one form of student debt that I welcome,” he said. “It’s that generosity of kindness that becomes a transformational form of leadership. If I look for a way to offer compassion and hospitality in the same way that I received, to someone who needs that support, then by the natural magic of reciprocity, that person becomes activated to do the same, when their turn comes, for the next person.
“It’s the most beautiful chain reaction of kindness,” Pierson added.
He said the experience of working to earn a degree also has taught the graduates about their own strengths.
“We have learned that we’re stronger than we knew,” he said. “We can do difficult things.”
He then asked graduates to remember, in the future, that they hold that strength, so they will have the courage to step up to help their communities.
“Let’s do it, together,” he invited them.
Once the degrees were conferred, the tassels were turned, and the graduates had proceeded down the aisle to enthusiastic applause, they gathered for conversation and refreshments at the back of the auditorium.
Angela Heck, of Ketchikan, who graduated with a Associate of Applied Science degree in business administration, gathered with her family at the photo corner in the auditorium, where a backdrop with graduation-themed props had been set up.
When asked what the most challenging part of earning her degree had been, she said it was balancing her roles of full-time employee and full-time parent with her college course work. That didn’t deter her though, and she said she already plans to jump into her next degree program.
“I’m doing a bachelor’s in business administration with HR management,” she said, adding, “I just love learning, so I’m going to go as long as I can. My plan is to get at least three bachelors.”
She said earning the first degree was her big milestone, but she’s focused more on the journey of education than a fixed career goal. She now works as an administrative assistant for the Alaska State Troopers.
Pierson, between chatting with faculty, shared his thoughts about his five-year journey to earning his degree. He said he’d taken some college courses in Oregon when he was younger and living in Portland, but he’d never felt like they fit.
He began his degree program at UAS studying education, but said his focus has shifted to writing. He has led writing workshops held at the library in Petersburg, and said he is looking forward to teaching more, as well as entering a master’s degree program in writing this summer.
“Writing is the thing that I really wanted to learn in my higher education, that I felt like I had no efficacy around, no knowledge of craft, no experience whatsoever,” Pierson said.
He said that even though he had been building practical experience by working for the Petersburg newspaper, he wanted more formal training, so he enrolled in online UAS writing classes.
“I’ve never, ever had a learning experience as satisfying and nourishing as that,” he said. “I felt my mind being transformed. I felt my life being changed in those classrooms.”
In Petersburg, he said he is deeply involved with the community, through participating in various boards and teaching writing skills. The online option to earn his master’s degree dovetails nicely with his desire to stay in Petersburg as an active community member, he said.
“I’ve never felt so needed by a community of people,” Pierson said. “There’s a lot of fulfillment through that. I wear a lot of hats in Petersburg.”
Gabriel Duckworth, of Ketchikan, who was gathered with family after the ceremony, said his path to earning his Bachelor of Science in social work “sure was long.”
He said he started about 17 years ago, when he earned his associate degree at age 19.
He said has been involved with the Residential Youth Care organization for teens since he was young, working alongside his father, Jack Duckworth.
Gabriel Duckworth said that critical to his educational success was the support of UAS Ketchikan Campus Student Services Manager Gail Klein.
“Gail has been working with me since I was 19,” he said, “like, my whole life.”
He said she has supported him through a long list of life trials, tribulations and upheavals.
“It’s 90 percent the support,” he said, of his success.
He added that he looks forward to earning a master’s degree next.
Duckworth described his personal motivation as his love for working with young people.
“I love helping kids. I have a military background as well, and shaping young men and women into that transitional age, what can be more rewarding than that?” he explained. “I can give them knowledge and direction they can use today — not someday.”