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This UAA grad sought college success out of state, but found it back home

Lyndea Kelleher who will be graduating from UAA this Sunday poses for a photograph in the Rasmuson Building on the UAA campus in Anchorage, AK area on Friday May 4, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

In high school, Lyndea Kelleher saw leaving Alaska as the path to college success.

But she ended up finding it back in her hometown.

On Sunday,  Kelleher took the stage at University of Alaska Anchorage's spring commencement laden with signs of her achievements: Four different honor cords for academics and leadership and a medal from the multicultural student group commencement, topped with fresh leis of orchids and carnations from her family and friends.

The 23-year-old economics major was chosen as student commencement speaker out of 1,240 spring graduates.

"I didn't think UAA was part of my future," she said in an interview after the commencement ceremony.  "But I had this amazing experience there I didn't expect at all."

Kelleher grew up in Spenard and attended Lake Hood Elementary and Romig Middle School. She has a younger brother and an older sister and brother. She was raised by her mom, an immigrant from the Philippines, and her dad, who came to Alaska from Iowa.

"I loved my childhood, that's what made me fall in love with Anchorage," she said.

Her dad died when she was a teenager, a turn that left her hiding her internal struggle from her peers.

At West Anchorage High School, she was one more busy, achieving kid in the school district's program for highly gifted students, busy with rifle team, cheerleading, band and honor society.

"I was doing all the things I was supposed to do," she said. "But it was hard."

In the highly gifted program, many of her peers equated success with out-of-state colleges.

"All of my friends were like 'Ivies, Ivies, top 20 schools,'" Kelleher said. "It felt like you had to go out."

She applied to a dozen colleges, including  Ivy League schools. She didn't apply to UAA.

Kelleher's mother Evelyn Kelleher-Yabyabin says she didn't want her daughter to leave the state for college.

"I was scared. But my husband, her step-dad, was like, she's gotta go. Explore more. Learn more," she said.

Kelleher chose the University of San Francisco, a private Jesuit university that offered her a full scholarship. But after three semesters she felt the tug of home.

Everything there had felt business-like and highly competitive. She missed her family and her city. She went home for winter break and decided to stay.

At the same time, high school friends who'd headed off to elite schools like Columbia University and Pomona College were also trickling back to Anchorage, disenchanted.

"Their dream school wasn't their dream school," she said.

Some of them were finding success at UAA. Could she, too, find a second chance at the college experience she'd wanted in Anchorage?

"I thought, I'm just going to keep an open mind," she said.

She took an economics class — a subject she'd "avoided forever" — and loved it, aided by the memorable lectures of professor Kyle Hampton.

Kelleher threw herself into activities and creating the student life she wanted. She went to economics club meetings, eventually becoming the president. She joined a sorority and the glee club. She worked as a business manager for the student government association. She was voted Homecoming Queen.

"There's a lot of pizzazz from the lectern," she said.

At UAA, "professors will allow you to call them at night if you can't make office hours. They will text you. There's an extra level of care I felt."

Kelleher said she has been impressed by the flexibility of UAA, and the understanding that many in the student body are juggling more responsibilities and carrying more life experience than the typical 18-year-old.

Post-graduation, she will wrap up an internship with the state Department of Revenue and look for full-time work.

In the long term, she says, she wants to stay in Anchorage, where she hopes to combine her love of economics with her progressive politics. She has been accepted to a program that trains young women to run for political office.

"I joke that I'd like to be the mayor but I kind of do," she said.

Her mother has another idea in mind.

"I'm shooting for her to become the first female president," she said.

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