Hometown U: In Class of 2013, A.A. and nursing degrees are most popular

Sunday' s UAA commencement address will be delivered by justice major and Seawolf debater Kelsey Waldorf of Homer.
Photo courtesy Kelsey Waldorf, UAA

Sunday's UAA Commencement ceremony at the Sullivan Arena is the obvious pinnacle of an academic year and a personal achievement for graduates. Working totals for today are 2,315 graduates accepting 2,421 degrees. Those numbers become official at the end of May, when the last degree is confirmed.

Significant as the numbers are, I always find them unsatisfying. They don't really tell the story of the Class of 2013. Who are they? How old are they? What degrees will they carry home and why?

Getting your arms around more than 2,000 graduation stories is a tall order, so I settled for highlights. Let's start with the most popular degrees. According to the registrar, the following are the most popular degrees and majors:

Associate of Arts (A.A.), General Program

Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Nursing

Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.), Nursing

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Psychology

Bachelor of Business Administration (B.B.A.), Management

I was surprised that two-year A.A. degrees from the College of Arts and Sciences were No. 1 at a four-year institution. The "general program" is considered its own major, covering writing and math skills, and introductions to the arts and the humanities.

Linda Morgan, director of Advising and Testing, says this degree reflects the needs of the UAA student body, many of whom are already working and raising families while they pursue higher education. If money runs out or obligations interfere, many students opt for the two-year degree so they can retain the value of the work they've already put in.

And "since they've earned one degree," Morgan said, "they are more likely to come back and finish a bachelor's degree."

In general, UAA students are older. While those aged 20 to 24 make up almost a third of the class of 2013, those aged 25 to 29 are a close second, with 30- to 39-year-olds a close third. That puts the mean age at just over 30. (See chart).

Nursing takes the next big chunk of degrees. For the story behind those numbers, I went to Maureen O'Malley, associate director of the School of Nursing. Instead of slowing down for graduation, O'Malley was speeding up, getting ready for summer nursing classes that begin Monday.

"Our numbers are that high because we graduate three cohorts a year in the bachelor's of science program," O'Malley said. Every fall, spring and summer, nursing launches 40 new students, or 120 for the year.

The two-year applied sciences (A.A.S.) nursing program launches two cohorts of 50 students a year, for a total of 100 annual graduates earning RN degrees.

"The A.A.S. is a more complex program," O'Malley said, "because it operates at 13 sites around the state, including Bethel, Nome, Ketchikan, Kodiak, Dillingham, Juneau, Sitka, Fairbanks and Anchorage."

Each site has an instructor. Rural students use online courses, video conferences and several intense rotations through hospitals in Anchorage or Fairbanks as they work toward their degrees.

The two programs have the capacity to produce 220 nurses a year. These high numbers reflect demand, O'Malley said, but that picture is changing too.

"Our grads get hired, but not as easily as they once did. The economy has slowed, and older nurses are staying in the work force," she said. On the other hand, "we are mindful of the aging boomers and getting ready to meet that need."

It's no surprise that psychology, the fourth most popular degree, might be a perennial favorite with undergraduates.

"I think we're all curious about ourselves," said new psych grad Alyssa Hoskie. "Exploring psychology helps explain some of those underlying mechanisms, like personality."

Psychology professor Gwen Lupfer said the psych degree's strong quantitative skill set prepares students for graduate school. Those who don't continue in higher ed usually find jobs at local social service agencies, she said.

Future jobs also figure strongly in the fifth most popular major, business administration-management, says professor Frank Jeffries.

"They are a pragmatic bunch, with a very high likelihood of jobs," Jeffries said. "It doesn't matter what the field is -- nursing, engineering -- you need managers. We're the glue that holds it all together."

Only about 15 percent of B.B.A. students go right on for an M.B.A., Jeffries said. Nearly half of business undergraduates are employed while they study, including about 20 percent who work full time, he said.

Sunday's commencement address will be delivered by justice major and Seawolf debater Kelsey Waldorf of Homer. Her time at UAA included student research with the Alaska State Troopers and the Anchorage Police Department, and writing a 60-page thesis on "the privacy implications of domestic drone surveillance." Up next for Waldorf is teaching English in Vietnam or a political internship in the Lower 48. She plans on law school, but her dream job is joining the FBI as a field agent.

The most moving story from the Class of 2013 has to be that of Bryan Arnold, a journalism and public communications major who will cross the stage in a wheelchair.

Arnold has muscular dystrophy, an incurable illness that robs muscles of their strength. In 2009, as a high school student at Steller Secondary, Arnold produced a video describing life with the disease. In it, he looks right at the camera and asks his audience to "see me for who I am and not just see the wheelchair I'm in." He talks about college and a career. Posted on YouTube, it attracted nearly 50,000 views.

Now, just four short years later, Arnold is very proud to have earned that degree. He plans a free summer, the first in a long time. In the fall, he'll start his job hunt. He's looking for communications work with a nonprofit.

Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

"Living with Muscular Dystrophy" by Bryan Arnold