On April 27, Iḷisaġvik College held its 17th commencement exercise with a class of 38 college graduates and 19 students receiving their GED. Graduates entered to the beat of drums played by members of the Iñupiaq Studies classes, and proceeded through a baleen arch held by Iḷisaġvik GED graduate and current college student Tiffany San Andres and former graduate Marilyn Booth. After a welcome address from Interim President Pearl Brower, Elder Wesley Aiken offered the invocation to begin the ceremony.
If there had been a theme to this year’s commencement among the speakers, it would have been perseverance. From the student speakers to the keynote, to the alumni of the year, all of the addresses focused on overcoming obstacles to make your goals a reality through education.
Two student speakers then addressed the crowd of nearly 300 attendees and graduates: Jerica Aamodt and Roy “Ernest” Nageak Jr. A current UAF student, Aamodt took many courses from Iḷisaġvik while in high school and has participated in the college’s summer programs. She delivered her motivational speech while wearing a very beautiful pair of mukluks she made at Iḷisaġvik. Receiving his Associate’s Degree after years of hard work, Nageak stood at the podium with pride and spoke of overcoming many hardships to get to this moment.
This year’s keynote speaker was 2011 Iditarod winner John Baker of Kotzebue. Baker is famous throughout Alaska not only for his Iditarod win but also for the inspiration he provides to Alaska Native youth to achieve their dreams. He spoke to his motto, “Dream. Try. Win.” and discussed the need to just keep trying again and again no matter how many times you might falter, using as an example the many years of practice it took for him to win the Iditarod. He also spoke about becoming a pilot and the example his mother was for him, as a single mother who founded the family’s air-taxi service, Baker Aviation, Inc.
The celebration continued as Assistant Professor of Iñupiaq Studies and recognized expert in Iñupiat culture, Fanny Kuutuuq Akpik, was honored with the Faculty of the Year Award. A teacher at Iḷisaġvik since its beginning in the early 1990’s, Akpik has been instrumental in shaping the Iñupiaq Studies program. For the past eight years, she has directed the Iñupiaq Land Use, Values, and Resources summer camp, an invaluable cultural field experience for North Slope teachers and high school students.
All graduates received a letter of congratulations from Governor Sean Parnell that was included with their diplomas and Senator Mark Begich addressed the graduates through a recorded DVD, also congratulating them on their achievement.
Next, Fred Miller, Iḷisaġvik’s Financial Aid Director, delivered his speech as the Alumni of the Year. He spoke from his heart to the assembled graduates, friends and families about his 10 year journey from being homeless on the streets of Las Vegas to being a fully employed, home-owning college graduate – all of which he attributed to getting sober and getting an education. “To the fellow graduates, I hope that Iḷisaġvik College can do for you what it did for me. I think my son Jeremy said it best when he said that every time he sees the movie ‘Pursuit of Happiness,’ he thinks of me.”
Miller went on to describe the significant moments in his transformation as he returned home to Barrow penniless and eventually found his way to college thanks to the encouragement of his late brother Dino. “…he was the brother who kept on pestering me to go to college. Well Dino, I did it. I stuck it out and I finished college.”
In her closing remarks, Interim President Brower said “Our students are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Their responsibilities, outside of school, go far, and go wide. I don’t know if there are words that can adequately describe just how dedicated and determined you have to be start and finish a degree, or certificate, especially when trying to balance so much else in your life. But these students before you today have managed to do just that! We are very proud that we could be here to get you started, or to help you continue, on your journey.”
The ceremony ended with a benediction from Elder Ida Olemaun followed by Eskimo dancing led by Instructor Fannie Akpik’s Iñupiaq Studies class, which many in the audience joined in great celebration.
The graduates and faculty of Iḷisaġvik especially noted the amazing efforts of Registrar Amm Cahoon, another Iḷisaġvik graduate, in organizing the ceremony and making it such a successful and enjoyable time for everyone. “Quyanakpak to Amm, as well as to our graduates’ families and all of Iḷisaġvik’s faculty and staff whose immense support made this day possible for our graduates,” concluded Interim President Brower.