This past weekend, I “presided” over the University of Alaska Anchorage’s fall 2020 graduate hooding and commencement ceremonies that occurred on Dec. 12 and 13. More than 1,000 students earned degrees or credentials. I put “presided” in quotes because this year is not normal in any sense of the word. The state is using the Alaska Airlines Center (AAC), where we hold our commencement ceremony, as a temporary outpatient infusion center for COVID-19 patients.
Normally we would welcome our graduates, their families and close friends to the AAC by the thousands for a joyous in-person celebration. Instead, this year, we celebrated with mailed diploma tubes and a dynamic website featuring pre-recorded speeches, confetti and a scrolling list of our graduates – a COVID-19-era ceremony that could be experienced safely at home. Similar virtual events occurred at UAA’s community campuses spread throughout Southcentral Alaska.
It’s still a happy occasion for me as I reflect on the number of lives we impact and transform at UAA. As I prepare to move on to another university, it is also a good time to reflect on my sadness that your hometown university is often misunderstood and underappreciated by its own community. Our leadership team, faculty, staff, student leaders and alumni have worked hard over the past couple years to begin to change that perception by pointing out the myriad ways UAA contributes to its community and state, including the contributions of our faculty in Alaska’s COVID-19 response.
UAA faculty stepped up to respond to the pandemic in many ways, including developing predictive models to track infection rates and intensive care unit utilization. They have also trained hundreds of contact tracers to serve the region and the state. I would proudly and confidently stack UAA up against any other open-access, urban-metropolitan university in the United States. UAA is that good.
Our students come from all walks of life and reflect the diversity of the surrounding communities and the state as a whole. Eighteen percent of students come from the military community. Over 80% of students work while earning their degree, and many even work full-time despite rigorous course loads. The fall 2020 student commencement speaker Jamie Bagley and graduate hooding ceremony speaker Naidene Baechler are excellent examples of the graduates UAA consistently produces.
Bagley aspires to be a veterinarian. While studying biological sciences at UAA, she worked part time at a local veterinary clinic, gaining valuable, hands-on experience while applying to graduate veterinary programs. She has been active in UAA student government serving in various roles as vice president, president and speaker of the assembly.
Baechler is a shining example of UAA graduates who contribute broadly to Alaska’s communities. She began her career as a program supervisor for the Knik Tribal Council (KTC) just one week after completing her Master of Social Work this past May. KTC knew of Baechler’s skill, talents and capabilities thanks to an internship experience required by her master’s program. Because the timing of the pandemic prevented a virtual graduate hooding ceremony last spring, she and other May graduates were invited to participate in this fall’s event.
Earlier this year, the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States named Baechler one of three Arctic Indigenous Scholars for 2020. The honor is awarded to individuals who are experts in their own Indigenous knowledge systems. Scholars have the opportunity to share that expertise by meeting with federal policymakers to discuss pressing social, political and environmental issues important to their communities.
Although UAA has had its challenges, including a 30% reduction to our base state funding over the past eight years, we remain remarkably strong and resilient. While this fiscal reality led to many difficult decisions, we’re focusing our resources on programs and activities that are in demand while making necessary changes to operate more efficiently and cope with a global pandemic.
In spite of all this, we remain deeply connected to our hometown — nearly 40% of Anchorage residents are affiliated with UAA in some way, whether as an alum, as a current student or as an employer or family member of a UAA grad. These individuals contribute meaningfully throughout the community and deserve your recognition and pride on graduation day — and every day. There is little doubt Anchorage would be a far different place were it not for your hometown university.
Cathy Sandeen is the outgoing chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage and the incoming president of California State University, East Bay.
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