On a sunny Sunday afternoon in Anchorage, crowds of newly-minted graduates of the University of Alaska Anchorage poured from the Alaska Airlines Center, cheering and laughing as they celebrated the completion of their degrees.
Amid the graduates clutching flowers and diplomas, alumna Mariana Morari stood with two grey buckets and a sign asking for a peculiar kind of donation: The graduates' iconic black graduation gowns.
Morari, who graduated from UAA in 2014, has a vision for those gowns: Send them halfway across the world, so they can be used again.
Morari hopes to stage the first-ever graduation ceremony in her hometown of Hirtopul Mare, a village in the Republic of Moldova. Those gowns will be used by high school students who she says are struggling to stay in school amid economic hardship, Morari said.
Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Moldova is wedged between Romania and Ukraine and has a population of roughly 3.6 million people. The CIA says the country is among the poorest in Europe. In recent days, protesters have hit the streets over $1 billion that has gone missing from the nations' banks, a situation which threatens the stability of the nation's entire banking system.
Morari's hometown relies on farming to sustain its meager economy. The community's high school, Liceul Teoretic Hirtopul Mic, has about 300 students, Morari said. But times are hard. More kids are dropping out of high school, Morari said, and fewer parents are sending their kids to university, because the expense seems to outweigh any perceived benefit.
Morari wants to change that.
In 2014, Morari graduated from UAA with an master's degree in public administration. Graduation day stuck with her.
"It was just one of those moments … it was very emotional," Morari said.
She sees the ceremony as a source of inspiration for students working to graduate. With that in mind, she started developing an idea to host the first formal graduation in her hometown, to bring that culture of celebration to students in Moldova and inspire them to continue their studies.
But, "the gowns are very expensive," Morari said, and "my community is very poor."
So the gears started turning. At first, Morari thought she would save up the money for the materials to buy the gowns. But that proved to be far too costly.
So Morari put her proposal to collect the used graduation gowns to UAA's commencement committee.
"I thought it would be a crazy idea and they would say no," she said.
Instead, she received an enthusiastic response from faculty, some of whom offered to help pay for shipping to Eastern Europe.
This is not the first time Morari has sought to inspire students in her hometown.
In February, Morari was invited back for a high school reunion. She couldn't go, so instead she sent her graduation hood, which decorates the gown. On the hood, she embroidered her former teachers' names. She coordinated with folks in her hometown so that during the ceremony, one by one, the teachers had their names called from the hood and were handed a flower, Morari said.
After the reunion, students began reaching out to her. They thanked her and said she was a role model. One student told her that he was so inspired he would stay in school "no matter what the circumstances might be," Morari said. Her hood, diploma and a photo of her at her UAA graduation is displayed at the school.
Morari says promoting education is her life goal. She wants students to believe they can achieve their dreams.
In about half an hour Sunday, the parking lot had cleared out. Morari had gathered 10 gowns. She still needed to collect the gowns from two other drop-off areas. She said she expects more to be donated in coming days. The gown may be precious to the graduates today, Morari said, but won't seem so important tomorrow.
She's looking for at least 40 gowns. The UAA Alumni Association will continue to collect the gowns going forward.
In addition to collecting gowns, she has teamed up with another UAA alum to create the organization "Backpacks for Hope," which Morari envisions as providing necessities such as clothing and shoes to students in her hometown who "cannot go to school because they don't have the necessary tools," Morari said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing