The University of Alaska Southeast class of 2024 receive their degrees during a commencement ceremony Sunday at the UAS Recreation Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The University of Alaska Southeast class of 2024 receive their degrees during a commencement ceremony Sunday at the UAS Recreation Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

New University of Alaska Southeast graduates cherish the moment and the challenges yet to come

More than 300 degree recipients honored during Sunday’s commencement ceremony.

Ricardo Medina Soler was planning to spend his graduation night Sunday celebrating around an outdoor fire — or not, if the day’s occasionally heavy rain returned — but the new University of Alaska Southeast alumni said he was eager after that to get right back to work on Monday.

“I have work in my whale watching tour boat company,” said Soler, who received his degree in biology Sunday. “I am a naturalist, and I think it’s very exciting that I get to exercise my profession as a biologist by educating people on Pacific Northwest whales and other species. It’s super fun. I forget that sometimes I’m a worker because I just enjoy seeing Southeast Alaska from the panoramic view and seeing all those animals so much. I tear up every single time.”

Ricardo Medina Soler (right) holds his degree while posing with his brother, Cesar, and the University of Alaska mascot following Sunday’s commencement ceremony at the UAS Recreational Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Ricardo Medina Soler (right) holds his degree while posing with his brother, Cesar, and the University of Alaska mascot following Sunday’s commencement ceremony at the UAS Recreational Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Soler, one of more than 300 degree recipients recognized during Sunday’s ceremony, moved from Puerto Rico to Juneau two years ago when he was offered an opportunity by the university and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to conduct marine research. He said he hopes to use his degree to pursue a career as a veterinarian, due in part to Juneau’s shortage of animal care professionals.

UAS commencement ceremonies were also held in Sitka and Ketchikan, where other regional campuses are located, and the annual Annual Native Graduation Celebration was held at the Juneau Campus on Sunday morning before the main commencement gathering four hours later. The main Fairbanks campus held its commencement Saturday while Anchorage joined UAS in honoring its graduates Sunday.

The Mt. Juneau Tlingit and Woosh.Ji.Een Dancers offer a welcome procession to graduating students at the University of Alaska Southeast as they enter the UAS Recreational Center for their commencement ceremony on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The Mt. Juneau Tlingit and Woosh.Ji.Een Dancers offer a welcome procession to graduating students at the University of Alaska Southeast as they enter the UAS Recreational Center for their commencement ceremony on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau’s graduates entered the UAS Recreation Hall to greetings from Mt. Juneau Tlingit and Woosh.Ji.Een Dancers as they performed at the entrance to the hall in front of the stage. That was followed by a traditional welcome by Áakʼw Ḵwáan elder Fran Houston.

“It’s always an honor to be here,” she said. “I’ve lost count, (but) I think this is year five that we’ve done this dancing in with the chat, and the spirit and energy that comes into this hall. I know I’m energized, and I just wanted to welcome each and every one of you.”

A callout asking instructors, alumni, family of graduates and others with ties to the university to stand up in turn was offered by UAS Chancellor Aparna Dileep-Nageswaran Palmer just before the graduating students were officially conferred their degrees.

“Graduates please take time today to thank everyone who has come here to support you who have helped you on your journey to this celebration today,” she said.

Devyn Reece offers the student commencement speech for the University of Alaska’s class of 2024 during Sunday’s ceremony at the UAS Recreation Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Devyn Reece offers the student commencement speech for the University of Alaska’s class of 2024 during Sunday’s ceremony at the UAS Recreation Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The student commencement speech was delivered by Devyn Reece minutes after he received his bachelor of arts degree in special education — awarded after he has already spent a year as a special education teacher in the Juneau School District. Befitting his newly crowned status as an academic, he opened his remarks by telling his fellow graduates about a philosophy known as the “zone of proximal development.”

“This theory describes the conceptual zone between what we are not currently capable of and that which we’ve mastered,” he said. “A key tenant of the zone is that we can only transition from the unknown to the known, from inability to capability, with guidance and support. The people in this room have loved and supported you and encouraged you throughout your journey, sharing their knowledge and skills and experience to help you grow. Without them, you might not be here today.”

But Reece also emphasized individuals play the biggest role in their successes, noting he suffered a traumatic brain injury as a crime victim in 2008 that left him “undiagnosed with an invisible disability for a decade.”

“In order to become the man I am today I had to mourn the loss of who I thought I was going to be and learn to love the person I was becoming,” he said. “I had to repair the bridges I had burnt, learn who I was, who I wanted to be and make the choice to pursue the life that I wanted.”

Courtney Hart receives her hood from Professor Ginny Eckert as one of two doctorate graduates during the University of Alaska Southeast commencement ceremony on Sunday at the UAS Recreation Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Courtney Hart receives her hood from Professor Ginny Eckert as one of two doctorate graduates during the University of Alaska Southeast commencement ceremony on Sunday at the UAS Recreation Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Two of the graduates received doctorate-level degrees, both for research related to fisheries. Lia Katherine Domke studied the relationships between species in nearshore marine ecosystems in Southeast Alaska, while Courtney Hart studied patterns of mechanisms of paralytic shellfish toxicity in Southeast’s commercially harvested geoduck clams.

An honorary doctorate of fine arts was presented through the Fairbanks campus to Della Sdaahlk’awaás Cheney, who was born in Kake and became a statewide icon of Indigenous heritage, Palmer said. Cheney also was an executive secretary in the Alaska governor’s office, tribal administrator for the Qutekcak Native Tribe, cultural educator at Floyd Dryden Middle School and external relations coordinator for Sheldon Jackson College.

“She is a master weaver, teacher and public servant who has shared her insights and talents with thousands of people across many decades, helping to sustain traditional knowledge and advance the well-being of Indigenous communities through Alaska,” Palmer said.

Della Sdaahlk’awaás Cheney offers thanks after receiving an honorary doctorate of fine arts during the University of Alaska Southeast commencement ceremony on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Della Sdaahlk’awaás Cheney offers thanks after receiving an honorary doctorate of fine arts during the University of Alaska Southeast commencement ceremony on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Cheney, in brief remarks, offered thanks to her presenters, love to her family members and appreciation to the crowd of new graduates.

“It’s unbelievable to see so many young people moving up in their world to become better human beings,” she said.

The commencement ceremony ended with the graduates exiting the hall through the center aisle, where UAS staff, administrators and other dignitaries with ties to the university stood along both sides of the aisle to offer congratulations. Before the graduates departed a charge to them was offered by Paul Layer, UAS’ vice president of academics, students and research, who urged them not to be too eager to rush back to work or whatever lies ahead on Monday.

“As you turn your page to the next journey don’t forget to take time to enjoy and bask in this moment,” he said. “Yes, there are new things coming on the horizon, jobs to return to and unknowns to discover. But make sure you take the time to celebrate today and all you have accomplished.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

New University of Alaska Southeast graduates receive their degrees and congratulations from Provost Maren Haavig, Vice President Paul Layer and Chancellor Aparna Dileep-Nageswaran Palmer during Sunday’s commencement ceremony at the UAS Recreation Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

New University of Alaska Southeast graduates receive their degrees and congratulations from Provost Maren Haavig, Vice President Paul Layer and Chancellor Aparna Dileep-Nageswaran Palmer during Sunday’s commencement ceremony at the UAS Recreation Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Elizabeth Kell (right) and Ricardo Medina Soler enter the University of Alaska commencement ceremony to receive their degrees on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Elizabeth Kell (right) and Ricardo Medina Soler enter the University of Alaska commencement ceremony to receive their degrees on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

University of Alaska Chancellor Aparna Dileep-Nageswaran Palmer offers commencement remarks to graduating students during Sunday’s ceremony at the UAS Recreation Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

University of Alaska Chancellor Aparna Dileep-Nageswaran Palmer offers commencement remarks to graduating students during Sunday’s ceremony at the UAS Recreation Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Newly recognized University of Alaska Southeast graduates pose for their official photos after receiving their degrees during Sunday’s commencement ceremony at the UAS Recreation Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Newly recognized University of Alaska Southeast graduates pose for their official photos after receiving their degrees during Sunday’s commencement ceremony at the UAS Recreation Center. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A newly graduated University of Alaska Southeast student blows a kiss toward the crowd as the students exit Sunday’s commencement ceremony to congratulations from university professors and other leaders along both sides of the center isle. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A newly graduated University of Alaska Southeast student blows a kiss toward the crowd as the students exit Sunday’s commencement ceremony to congratulations from university professors and other leaders along both sides of the center isle. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

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