The University of Alaska Southeast recognized the 24 students in the Class of 2021 during a virtual commencement ceremony that debuted on Friday evening.

The nearly hour-long video featured the names and achievements of the students, as well comments from UAS Ketchikan Director Pricilla Schulte, University of Alaska Interim President Pat Pittney and UAS Chancellor Karen Carey. The commencement address was delivered by Clare Bennett, and the ceremony was rounded out with remarks by student speaker Jennifer Helberg-Nilsen.

The video opened with the names and degrees of the Class of 2021, which include:

• Danielle Lambert, accounting certificate.

• Ruth Pechay, medical assisting certificate.

• Julia Sapelkina, University of Alaska Fairbanks certificate, information technology specialist.

• Alexis Yoder, medical assisting certificate.

• Adam Harford, Associate of Applied Science in business administration.

• Rhiannon Norton-Davis, Associate of Applied Science, health sciences.

• Sabrina Smith, Associate of Applied Science, business administration.

• Mariah Warren, Associate of Applied Science, marine transportation.

• Jennifer Helberg-Nilsen, Associate of the Arts.

• Jessica Travis, Associate of the Arts.

• Deborah Buring, Bachelor of the Arts, social science.

• Jennifer Carter, Bachelor of Arts, social science.

• Mark Anthony Dulay, Bachelor of Arts, social science.

• Brandy Mulbery, Bachelor of the Arts, social science.

• Katherine Gifford, Bachelor of the Arts, special education.

• Heather Henderson, Bachelor of business administration.

• Sidney Hartley, Bachelor of Liberal Arts, Alaska Native language and studies.

• Heather Miethe, Bachelor of Liberal Arts, interdisciplinary studies.

• Jasmine Taylor Bryany, Bachelor of Liberal Arts, interdisciplinary studies.

• Mary Rose Maley, Master of Arts in teaching, secondary education.

• Daniela Seaz, Master of Arts in teaching, secondary education.

• Tony Scott, Master of Education, mathematics education.

Schulte continued the virtual commencement by congratulating the graduates, and reflecting on the realities of an abnormal school year.

"This year has been quite different than any other year that I can remember," Schulte said. "This year has been drastically changed, as well as our lives. So, it is with joy and honor that we present the recognition of the achievements of this year's graduates."

Schulte recognized that the ceremony was markedly different than that of other years, as the coronavirus pandemic prevented an in-person celebration.

"I will miss seeing the faces of all those in our island community who normally would be attending the event we hold each spring at the Ted Ferry Civic Center," said Schulte. "The proud parents and spouses, children and grandchildren, uncles and aunties, coworkers, supervisors and friends who turn out to see their graduate."

"To those who will be turning their tassels today, we're proud of you," Schulte said. "Our faculty and staff are pleased that we've had an opportunity to work with each of you and wish you the best as you continue your life's journey."

During her remarks, Schulte also recognized UAS Ketchikan professors and staff for their hard work during the school year.

"I offer my sincerest thanks to them for their personal contributions to our students' success," Schulte commented.

Schulte also announced that UAS Ketchikan English professor Rod Landis, who will be retiring this month, was granted professor emeritus status by the university system.

"We thank Professor Landis for his outstanding work and contributions to UAS Southeast," Schulte said.

University of Alaska Interim President Pat Pitney then delivered her congratulations via a video included in the UAS virtual ceremony.

"Today, you, the members of the class of 2021, join the ranks of more than 100,000 UAS alumni," Pitney said. "The journey you began when you started at UAS will continue long after this graduation ceremony. This journey is one that the university has prepared you to take. One that will contribute to our state's economy and the communities each of you call home. Your journey will require you to overcome more adversities and challenges. You are no stranger to challenges – this past year has been one to all of us."

Pitney said that obtaining higher education is always a milestone, but was especially impressive during a pandemic.

"I commend you for completing your degree at a time when the world and the university underwent unprecedented change," she said. "You have proven that you are determined, resilient and adaptable."

She closed her comments by reminding the class of 2021 that, "whatever path you choose, walk it with great personal strength."

After Pitney, UAS Chancellor Karen Carey also addressed the Class of 2021.

She opened her speech with thoughts about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted education.

"Last year when COVID first hit us, I thought, 'Well, we'll be back to school in no time,'" she reflected.

Carey continued, "Little did any of us know that COVID would still be with us over a year later. Some people decided to work on jigsaw puzzles, learn to cook, or watch hours and hours of Netflix. But not you. What you have done is truly awe-inspiring. Even in the midst of a pandemic, you persevered, demonstrated your strength and your resilience. You are special to me and you are awesome."

Carey noted that "life is tough," but the class of 2021 can move forward with success.

"I know you will succeed in life, whether you are getting a job, going on to graduate school, or focusing on your family," she said.

After Pitney and Carey delivered speeches, Schulte announced that Elizabeth Nelson is the 2021 recipient of the Meritorious Service Award.

The award, according to UAS information, is given annually to a community member "who has offered outstanding service to the university, the state of Alaska, or Southeast communities."

Nelson has served as the executive director at First City Players since 1985, according to Schulte, and also has worked as an adjunct faculty member at UAS for literature, acting and theater history classes. Nelson in the past has been honored by Women in Safe Homes as a woman of distinction.

Schulte noted that Nelson has been key in developing and providing annual youth theater camps in Ketchikan, as well as the yearly summer production of the local melodrama "The Fish Pirate's Daughter."

"Her leadership is guided above all by inclusivity and is fueled by an unwavering drive to bring new people into the fold," Schulte said. "She is a visionary in her outreach to the broader Ketchikan community and beyond."

Nelson spoke to the Daily News about the award on Wednesday, calling it an honor.

"I'm very honored," Nelson said. "I guess as I say about most things, I've been lucky enough to do what I love in a place that I love for most of my adult life, and to be appreciated for that is like icing on the cake."

Clare Bennett — known in Ketchikan for her work in education and theater – was the commencement speaker.

"Earning a degree or certificate is a landmark in the best of times, and a heroic one in the times we find ourselves in today," Bennett said. "Your stories, the paths you took to get to this moment, are as diverse as the subjects you studied and mastered. But they are all stories nevertheless, and therein lies the similarities."

Bennett likened the journey to a degree as a kind of fairy tale.

"We tend to think of fairy tales as stories for children, but there are lessons that keep them relevant and remind us to recognize and celebrate our path to grandmother's house, whatever that means to you," she said.

Bennett compared the commencement video to standing in a beautiful clearing after traveling through a fairy tale thicket, and spoke of potential obstacles facing the class of 2021.

"Our future paths may lead us through an even darker wood with even more treacherous terrain," said Bennett. "But take the time to look back and take stock of the strength that brought you here. Your courage, persistence, compassion and selflessness. The family and friends who came to your aid. These qualities that you relied on during your journey will remain with you. You earned them, just as you earned your degree."

Bennett finished, "Remember to love your story, and look ahead with confidence."

After a slideshow with written comments from the graduates, UAS history professor John Radzilowksi spoke about the history of graduation traditions, and student speaker Jennifer Helberg-Nilsen delivered closing remarks.

Helberg-Nilsen said she wrote her speech with a theme of "inspiration."

"When asked to speak at our graduation ceremony, I wanted to write a speech about inspiration and reaching success, even during times of change and hardship."

She said she did a lot of research about inspiring stories and figures.

"Then it occurred to me that graduating college during the toughest year of our generation, is, in itself, inspiring," Helberg-Nilsen said. "Making the additional sacrifices to ensure success is inspiring. Dedicating yourself to your future is inspiring. Having the perseverance and resolution to finish your goals is truly inspiring."

"I always used to tell people, when they asked me about my degree, that I don't have a degree. I have receipts," she finished. "And now after three children (and) a major career change, I can say that I don't just have receipts anymore. I have a degree. And a bright future including continued education at UAS."