This combination image shows senior students Kiley Morris, 18, of Thunder Mountain High School, Helen John, 17, of Yaakoosgé Daakahídi High School, and Krishna Bathija, 18, of Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. Each is scheduled to speak at their respective graduation ceremonies on Sunday. (Photos by Juneau Empire staff)

This combination image shows senior students Kiley Morris, 18, of Thunder Mountain High School, Helen John, 17, of Yaakoosgé Daakahídi High School, and Krishna Bathija, 18, of Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. Each is scheduled to speak at their respective graduation ceremonies on Sunday. (Photos by Juneau Empire staff)

3 on ‘23: Graduating seniors discuss past lessons and future plans

Students among speakers at Juneau’s three high school ceremonies Sunday

Three Juneau students speaking at their respective high school graduations Sunday took drastically different routes getting to the lectern, and their paths will again diverge widely after their tassels are moved and their caps are tossed.

But all three share similarities beyond composing words to share with their fellow seniors, such as actively engaging in student government entities, sports and cultural interests outside the classroom. All are also planning to start college this fall with an eye on scholarly professions.

All three also experienced struggles resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic such as canceled in-person classes for an extended duration, but felt they finally emerged free of those setbacks during their senior year.

Graduation ceremonies are scheduled at 1 p.m. at Yaakoosgé Daakahídi High School, 4 p.m. at Thunder Mountain High School and 7 p.m. at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé.

Among the stories shared and people sharing them on graduation day are:

Kiley Morris, 18, Thunder Mountain High School

Morris was born in Juneau and lived in Ketchikan for a few years before moving back to the capital city in the middle of eighth grade, attending Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School.

Though she’s never traveled further east than the state of Texas from Southeast Alaska, Morris is set to head to New Haven, Connecticut, for Ivy League studies at Yale University.

In addition to serving as student body president — and studying for her 11 Advanced Placement courses — Morris stayed busy during her four years at TMHS, serving as captain of the soccer team, math club, Battle of the Books, and Juneau drama, debate and forensics team. She’s also a valedictorian and will be speaking to the class at the graduation.

Looking to her future at Yale, Morris said she hopes to double major in education and either political science or English, and minor in whichever subject gets left behind. Beyond that her future career path remains uncertain — but she’s got a variety of ideas on where she’d like to see it go.

“I want to start teaching in high school and teach English preferably, and maybe volunteer around school activities and stuff like that, and from there I either can see myself going down the legislative path, but I’ve kind of always wanted to open up a bookstore,” she said, laughing.

Though she’s heading across the country, Morris said she can see herself coming back to Juneau — and TMHS — to teach.

“I’m hoping I do just because it is a really good environment here and we just have such a nice community, but it will be fun to taste the new fresh air over there and experience different things,” she said. “My grandma’s a teacher and she’s a big influence, and then the other part of it was just knowing how much my teachers have impacted me and being able to shape how I developed and grow into the person I am and to affect me in a positive way.”

She said the advice she’d give to incoming students at TMHS is to “get involved,” and said she found some of her greatest experiences that happened during her high school career outside the classroom and during the summertime.

Instead of using all of her free time to hang out with friends and relax like many high school students, she partook in opportunities such as the U.S. Senate youth program, the Distinguished Young Women program and Oratorical Contest among other activities.

“You really have to look for those opportunities and latch on to them because we’re at a disadvantage not having all of these big giant names and programs here in Alaska,” she said.

She thanked her fellow classmates for supporting her and each other during all the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she’s grateful for the connections she’s made along the way and is excited for the new people she will soon meet.

“I think we’ve all been each other’s support system all this time and it’s been really key for all of us to just thrive and survive just our high school careers,” she said.

Helen John, 17, Yaakoosgé Daakahídi High School

John, a lifelong Juneau resident who transferred to the alternative high school during the pandemic, is the only student who spoke up when officials asked who was interested in speaking at the school’s ceremony.

“I was the only one who said yes because because I’ve done public speaking since I was really little,” she said. “I’m just super excited. I’m really proud of myself for graduating.”

John grew up with a mixture of traditional and Tlingit education, attending Sítʼ Eetí Shaanáx̱ – Glacier Valley Elementary School and Floyd Dryden Middle School, while also participating for years in the Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy program as a student and then as an instructor.

She said her entry in the program during the sixth grade came after a solo effort to get it started, although she quipped “I didn’t harass the principal.”

“Every day during lunch I would go get my lunch, put it down in the cafeteria, and go to the principal’s office just every day and be like ‘When is the Tlingit language class happening?’” she said. “I was told there was going to be a Tlingit class here. This is why I came to this school. By like the third week of school we had a Tlingit language teacher.”

John initially started high school at Thunder Mountain, but felt more comfortable after transferring to Yaakoosgé Daakahídi.

“I like the idea of having smaller classrooms,” she said. “And my voice really wasn’t heard at Thunder Mountain. It’s such a big school. I really liked it there. But being at Yaakoosgé, I really thrived and found somewhere where I belonged, and was able to advocate for myself. I really found my voice and really learned who I was, and became more confident.”

Among the areas her voice expressed itself was her TCLL background, said her mother, Jessica.

“She has a really great grasp and understanding of the language,” she said. “And when she went to Yaakoosgé they saw that and they were saying ‘Let’s make posters, help us, Helen,’ and so they were really looking at her strengths and supporting her in that direction.”

John also worked with the Douglas Indian Association and was part of a student council board that recently attended the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., where “we were sitting down and learning the Native laws and then how we can advocate for different things in our community.”

She also joined Native Youth Olympics as gymnast in 2019 and last summer won second place in the Dena Stick Pull at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks.

“It was nice to find people who cared about the culture like I did. And then I learned that working out isn’t something horrible. I used to hate working out. But I really found that it’s a really good outlet for me and as a gymnast being able to learn new skills.”

The hardest part of high school for John, like many students in her class, was the limitations the pandemic imposed during their initial years.

“It was really hard not to be able to socialize with anyone, or see anyone or going and having actual classes, and having to stare at a screen all day was really hard for me,” she said. “I have ADHD so for me it’s really hard for me just to sit in one place and do it and get it done. So then I did online school, like homeschool, and it just didn’t really work out for me.”

The path forward is intimidating, but also one that’s close to home.

“I’m feeling a little scared,” she said. “But I did get accepted into UAS. And so I’m excited to start my general education there with them. And this summer I’m working as an intern at (Sealaska Heritage Institute) in their teaching program to really see what teaching is about. We’re going to be working at the Tlingit language and culture camps.”

John said she also hopes to spend part of the season gillnetting with her dad and next door neighbors, which she has done for the past several years.

“It doesn’t feel like work to me because I have a lot of fun out there,” she said. “And I like eating the fresh fish.”

She’s planning to start college at the University of Alaska Southeast this fall, where she plans to study teaching.

“I like advocating for our language,” she said. “And I think it starts when they’re younger. So if you start with younger kids or people before they’re adults it’s really good.”

Krishna Bathija, 18, Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé

When people talk about high school graduates getting ready for take off into their world journey, Bathija is more geared up for that trip than most.

He’s planning to study electrical engineering and then aerospace engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks starting this fall, fulfilling a goal that began with a plane ride while he was growing up.

“I was confused on where I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “And I got on a plane to see my family on the East Coast. And I was looking out the window. I was looking at the wings. And I saw those little flaps go up when you landed. I was like, why? And that’s what started me on the path of I want to build planes, and make them better and faster.”

First will come his speech at JDHS, where he said his emphasis will be on how overcoming the struggles of the pandemic will make his peers more able to overcome the struggles in life to come.

“It’s about our perseverance through the global pandemic and basically how things are gonna be in the future if we could face that big of a global crisis so early in our life,” he said.

Bathija, whose at-home family includes two uncles and two cousins in addition to his immediate kin, said the pandemic posed challenges both at home and school.

“My dad was stuck across seas in India so it was a bit more difficult for me and my family,” he said. “But all the students were forced to do online schooling instead of having the in-person teaching and having the teachers that are used to teaching in person. And the nice thing about in-person teaching is that if you have a question it’s easier to ask. You are more focused because you’re not in front of the computer just staring at something the entire day.”

He did end up participating in a plethora of activities outside the classroom during his high school years, including the tennis team every year but his sophomore year (due to the pandemic) and he joined the baseball team last year. He was the chapter president of the National Honor Society this year doing projects ranging from a clothing drive for the Glory Hall to a blood drive for the Blood Bank of Alaska in Juneau. As a senior he also participated in the Alaska Association of Student Government conference in Skagway where agenda items included allowing students to wear hats in school and endorsing a legislative bill increasing the per-student education funding formula.

Also, as an inkling of his aviation ambitions ahead, Bathija was captain of the robotics team this year.

“My part was ensuring that it went well,” he said. “I helped with the diagnostics a little bit along with the building, and also organizing outreach activities and the fundraising.”

The lessons he learned from the team are ones he’ll apply both to work and life in the future.

“I’m just interested in the way that things work,” he said. “And I love figuring out how to solve problems and the best way to do those things, along with hearing the input from everybody because you can get so many good ideas from combining like a bunch of people’s ideas. It just makes everything better.”

Bathija said he will work as a manager at the base of the Mount Roberts Tram this summer before starting at UAF this fall. His two older sisters attended the University of Alaska Anchorage and he said the university’s generous scholarship program is part of what kept all of them in the state.

But UAF is uniquely appealing in other ways, Bathija said.

“They’re the only college in the nation that has a rocket launching facility,” he said. “And they also are the only college in Alaska that offers aerospace engineering at all.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306. Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651) 528-1807.

Kiley Morris, 18, among the students graduating from Thunder Mountain High School on Sunday, is a valedictorian of her class who is scheduled to attend Yale University starting this fall. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Kiley Morris, 18, among the students graduating from Thunder Mountain High School on Sunday, is a valedictorian of her class who is scheduled to attend Yale University starting this fall. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Helen John, 17, a senior at Yaakoosgé Daakahídi, is the only scheduled student speaker at her alternative high school’s graduation on Sunday. In addition to pursuing a non-traditional education in the classroom, John has spent many of her school-age years as a student and then teacher of Tlingit language and culture. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Helen John, 17, a senior at Yaakoosgé Daakahídi, is the only scheduled student speaker at her alternative high school’s graduation on Sunday. In addition to pursuing a non-traditional education in the classroom, John has spent many of her school-age years as a student and then teacher of Tlingit language and culture. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Krishna Bathija, 18, a senior graduating from Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, has participated in a variety of extracurricular activities during his four years there ranging from sports to governance, including a statewide student government conference where agenda items included seeking authorization for students to wear hats and endorsing a legislative bill increasing education funding. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Krishna Bathija, 18, a senior graduating from Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, has participated in a variety of extracurricular activities during his four years there ranging from sports to governance, including a statewide student government conference where agenda items included seeking authorization for students to wear hats and endorsing a legislative bill increasing education funding. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

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