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Lessons From Pandemic Prepare Graduates For Future

Resiliency and overcoming obstacles on the way to adulthood are common themes of commencement speeches. This year, those themes took on new meaning when addressed to the region’s 2020 high school graduates.

“You will forever be the class that stood in the space before the COVID-19 pandemic and after the COVID-19 pandemic, and there will be an after,” Kasigluk Akula Advisory School Board Chairman Arnold Bungy Brink Sr. told graduates.

“You will make ‘after’ a reality,” Kasigluk Akula Principal Kim Sweet said, delivering a commencement address with Brink Sr. “You will teach and learn in new ways to live in the world, and you will show the rest of us how to do so successfully.”

In Quinhagak, Principal Peggy Price pointed out to the graduates that they were born amid the seismic cultural shifts following the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. Now, they’re graduating amid the global changes of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

“They are ready to handle anything that the world throws at them, because the class of 2020 didn’t just have a story. They made history,” Price said.

The class of 2020 had to move to distance and online classes after spring break as Alaska schools closed to help keep the novel coronavirus from spreading. Hallmark events like prom, band festivals, and basketball tournaments were canceled. And for many classmates, used to hugging in hallways, their only social interaction occurred through screens. In his commencement address, Bethel Regional High School Senior Hayden Lieb said that he found himself questioning this new reality.

“We know we missed out on so much that is normal at the end of school celebration. It doesn’t seem fair does it? It goes to show you that not everything in life is fair or follows a normal that we think it should,” Lieb said, addressing his classmates. “Life is full of challenges and obstacles each and every one of us will come across. How we face them helps us to understand who we are and what we can accomplish.”

Leaving the schoolroom to learn at home forced many to be creative. To do the work of learning without a teacher present or schoolmates to help find the way through a tough assignment. In Upper Kalskag, Principal Severin Gardner looked on this year's graduation as a kind of new tradition.

“Usually at this time we’re all gathering to celebrate the end of these young people’s high school careers. Instead, we’re posting our graduation on a website and having it read over the radio. Instead of walking across a stage and receiving a diploma, we are riding on trucks and parading through the villages,” Gardner said.

In Bethel, the parade for Bethel Regional High School graduates ended at a parking lot, where attendees tuned their car radios to the graduation and honked in celebration. These graduates did get to step out of vehicles to accept their diploma in front of an audience. Before teacher Tad Lindley read their names, he announced: “My boss over here, Dr. Boyer, is wiping down each diploma with a disinfectant wipe because of the health mandates.”

In Mertarvik, Principal Dr. Elizabeth Ruff asked graduates to remember their Elders and parents when envisioning a new future. It was these Elders and parents who dreamed of moving their Newtok community to a new location and led the nation’s first modern relocation amid the climate crisis. Now, Mertarvik’s first graduates will lead the community through the current pandemic crisis.

“You must not take words like, ‘that’s impossible,’ or, ‘you can’t do that,’ or ‘no one has ever done that before,’ into your way of thinking,” Dr. Ruff urged the seniors. “You must look back and remember, and then look ahead to your future.”

Graduating seniors could not gather with family, friends, and teachers in the same room for a commencement ceremony this spring, so KYUK wanted to give them a graduation over the radio. KYUK reached out to schools in the Lower Kuskokwim and Kuspuk School Districts to participate, and many were happy to partner. The quotes in this story are excerpts from some of the commencement speeches aired on KYUK.

Listen to the full commencements from partnering LKSD schools here and from Kuspuk schools here.

Congratulations and good luck to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta's Class of 2020!

Anna Rose MacArthur served as KYUK's News Director from 2015-2022.
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