Juneau high school seniors Edward Hu of Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé (left), Elizabeth Djajalie of Thunder Mountain High School (center) and Kenyon Jordan of Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi Alternative High School. (Photos of Hu and Jordan by Juneau Empire staff, photo of Djajalie by Victor Djajalie)

Juneau high school seniors Edward Hu of Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé (left), Elizabeth Djajalie of Thunder Mountain High School (center) and Kenyon Jordan of Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi Alternative High School. (Photos of Hu and Jordan by Juneau Empire staff, photo of Djajalie by Victor Djajalie)

Senior Spotlight 2024: Three top students take very different paths to graduation stage

Ceremonies for Juneau’s three high schools take place Sunday.

From a lifelong resident who got off to a soaring start to a struggling teen who found his footing after moving to Juneau during his junior year, a trio of seniors who will be featured at the graduation ceremonies at the three local high schools on Sunday are each celebrating huge strides made in their own ways.

Graduation ceremonies are scheduled at 1 p.m. for Yaakoosgé Daakahídi High School (in the JDHS auditorium), 4 p.m. for Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé and 7 p.m. for Thunder Mountain High School.

Among the many noteworthy students celebrating their achievements on that day are:

Kenyon Jordan, 18, Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi Alternative High School

Jordan struggled when he started high school in Seattle amidst the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic and when he moved to Juneau at the beginning of his junior year only seven of his accumulated credits transferred to a school that requires 23 for graduation. Then shortly after beginning classes at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé he spent two weeks sick with COVID-19.

Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi Alternative High School senior Kenyon Jordan. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi Alternative High School senior Kenyon Jordan. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A change of plans was clearly in order.

Now having caught up on credits with top grades, Jordan will be among the featured speakers at Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi’s graduation ceremony after a final year where his extracurricular achievements ranged from being a student mentor to the only YDHS student on the Juneau Huskies varsity football team.

It wasn’t that hard work was a problem for Jordan, who as a woodworking enthusiast started with a birdhouse at the age of nine and his first porch at the age of 12. But he said Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi, while he didn’t know much about it when he started there midway through his junior year, offered a different approach to education that better suited his abilities.

“All I really knew was that I could make up credits if I went there, and me going there helped a lot,” he said. Because now that I’m graduating I can see the difference between the schools. At JD I felt like the teachers don’t help as much, but then when I went to Yaaḵoosgé the teachers would help as much as they could and then he give us time to turn in assignments before they gave us more.”

Also, Jordan said, “I’m more of a physical hands-on learner.”

“So I have to like be doing it as they’re telling me what to do and then I learn,” he said. “So they do that with me and it helps me out a lot.”

The more focused attention by instructors was mirrored by Jordan in his work with other students.

“I like to become a good role model for people that don’t know what a role model really is,” he said.

Community projects are common for Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi students, with Jordan frequently opting to help out at the Zach Gordon Youth Center. Playing wide receiver for the Huskies also absorbed a considerable amount of his time and effort outside the classrooms, but he said he never felt any sense of separation from teammates due to being the only YDHS student.

“It made it way easier because I remember when I played basketball and I was going to JD I couldn’t play in any games because my grades were really bad,” he said. “But when I went to Yaaḵoosgé and then I played football my grades were way better improved.”

Jordan said he plans to spend the summer working for a downtown jewelry store, then start looking for more permanent employment and considering trade school. He said when he lived in Anchorage for a time he did work through a church on people’s houses and that’s one of the occupations he’s considering.

“I want to look into carpentry and get something started with that because I do love when it comes to building, or breaking down, or anything to do with wood I love it,” he said. “It’s either that or one day if I decide to become like a gym trainer or something just to help people feel motivated in the gym and uplift themselves.”

Elizabeth Djajalie, 18, Thunder Mountain High School

Djajalie was born and raised in Juneau. She attended Faith Community School, Floyd Dryden Middle School, and then TMHS. She said in eighth grade her decision to attend TMHS was the close location to her house and the music program.

Thunder Mountain High School senior Elizabeth Djajalie. (Photo by Victor Djajalie)

Thunder Mountain High School senior Elizabeth Djajalie. (Photo by Victor Djajalie)

“I started out in orchestra and that was important with TM because orchestra being zero hour, I’d have to wake up extra early to get to JD and I’m not a morning person,” she said. “And I really loved the band program. So, (Brian Van Kirk) was my guitar teacher this year and he’s super awesome. I literally could not ask for a better band teacher.”

Djajalie played violin for the past 14 years and has performed at Carnegie Hall as a member of Juneau String Ensembles. She will sing the National Anthem at TMHS graduation on Sunday and again at the Juneau Memorial Day Service on Monday at Alaska Memorial Park.

In April, she attended the National Honor Society (NHS) Trailblazing Leadership Weekend, a gathering of the top 25 students in the country for the NHS scholarship. Teachers, educators, and assistant principals attended the weekend in Washington, D.C., including the TMHS Assistant Principal Kelly Stewart.

“What are the odds that the assistant principal and the student come from the same school from Alaska in the same year? That was just a really amazing experience, getting to meet a lot of people,” Djajalie said. “And actually some of my best friends that I’m going to be going to college with this fall, I met them there or reunited with them.”

Djajalie will be attending Harvard University in the fall. She’s considering pursuing biotech, pre-med and business. She was a top-five NHS Pillar Awardee for the Scholarship category, receiving $10,625.

After the NHS Trailblazing Leadership Weekend, Djajalie returned to D.C. later in April for the first annual National STEM festival, where she presented her graduate-level research on environmental biotechnologies.

She studied environmental DNA metabarcoding and qPCR to detect, quantify, and conserve various Pacific salmon species. She worked closely with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to develop the project independently of school.

“The biggest lesson from TMHS is, I think, just try everything,” she said. “When I first went into TM, I remember thinking, wow, high school is so cool, because there’s so much to do compared to middle school. I did sports for the first time in high school. I can’t imagine my high school experience without tennis or without the few days I spent in track.”

With her graduating class at TMHS the last before students are consolidated into JDHS next fall, Djajalie said what sets TMHS apart is a culture of respect and problem solving.

“I think that’s really shone through in this difficult time we have. Of course, everyone’s a little bit heartbroken. But at the same time they’ve approached it with a lot of grace,” she said. “We’re learning to work with JD in a collaborative way instead of any other negativity that might be there.”

As a sophomore she founded the Math and Critical Thinking Enigma Club with TMHS teacher Carol May. She launched, produced and hosted the “Future Women of STEM Podcast” as a junior, which has aired on public radio and reached listeners on four continents via Spotify. Outside of TMHS, Djajalie founded the Alaska Science and Engineering Fair Student Spokesperson Board, raising over $15,000 for the statewide STEM nonprofit.

Djajalie was also the TMHS student representative for the Juneau Board of Education.

“This last year was a very interesting time to be on the school board,” she said. “My biggest advice is to be thoughtful when you are giving a student report. They really do listen. I tried to emphasize our activities and our sports. I think it was important to emphasize a lot of the positivity TMHS has.”

A bittersweet moment for Djajalie was on Thursday when she handed out her graduation cards.

“I have so many people to thank. I’d say everyone from the librarian to the school registrar, who I asked for transcripts way too many times, to the attendance lady, to just every single one of my teachers across all disciplines really have just been so incredibly supportive and amazing,” she said. “And I owe all my success to them. And my parents, of course.”

Edward Hu, 18, Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé

With 30 minutes to go before his last final exam, Hu showed no signs of worry while chatting about being a National Merit Scholarship finalist getting ready to start medical studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore this fall. But that doesn’t mean everything comes easy to him — such as decorating his graduation cap with imagery from the animated sitcom “Regular Show.”

Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé senior Edward Hu. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé senior Edward Hu. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

“It’s not going that great,” he said while holding a glue gun and his cap in a classroom at JDHS.

When it comes to heavyweight achievements, though, Hu already has a long list. He’s planning to keep up his ambitious pace when he starts his path toward becoming a doctor this fall.

“I’m thinking about majoring in either chemistry or cellular molecular biology, which has a lot of chemistry in it,” he said.

When asked why he selected that as a major when he’s considering a career in medicine, Hu cited an interest in science sparked by classes at JDHS.

“Throughout my time in high school I was trying to just figure out what I like to do before going into medicine, because it’s kind of basic to just choose majoring in public health when going to medical school,” he said. “I wanted to do something different. And so I really liked our biology and chemistry courses that we offered here, and so that kind of really influenced my decision.”

“Chemistry was taught in a way where it was really interactive and I could really just understand what was happening in each lab that we were doing. And we did some pre-readings before the labs and I just really fell in love with it.”

As for medicine, Hu said he hopes to practice cardiothoracic surgery — due to the influence of another science class at JDHS.

“In my biology class there’s one project where I chose the cardiovascular system,” he said. “And so I had to learn a bunch of information about that. And so that’s kind of just the first thing that popped into my mind. And it’s bound to change in the future, but I feel like I will really stick to that because I just read more about it and I was like ‘hey, that sounds really cool.’”

Outside the classroom Hu has also gotten plenty of scientific knowledge which, while not in the field of medicine, played a role in his interest.

“I did work at an internship at NOAA, and I was working with handling fish and recording data about that,” he said. “And so I did a lot of dissections. So that’s kind of where I got this heart thing from because we had to cut open the fish and analyze just the insides, the organs. And so I guess that kind of influenced my decision in the cardiovascular thoracic area.”

Knowledge in marine science also came in handy for Hu as captain of the five-student JDHS team that won the Tsunami Bowl, a regional ocean science academic competition in Seward in March.

Hu said he is the first in his family to go to college, after his parents moved from Guangzhou, China, before he was born. He said he has returned to his parents’ homeland to visit relatives still living there, noting during his most recent visit several years ago some changes he said appeared to be giving people more freedom.

Despite all the time spent on academic pursuits and other endeavors such as the JDHS student government — where among other things he helped write a new constitution for the school as it prepares to receive students from Thunder Mountain High School next fall — Hu also played on JDHS’ soccer team the past two years. He also was on the cross-country team his freshman year, but decided other activities held more interest.

When asked what he considers his most significant achievement during his time at JDHS, Hu didn’t cite his national and regional honors. Instead, it was the school’s math department award.

“I picked my math department award over my National Merit Award because the National Merit Award is based on the standardized SATs score or the PSAT score,” he said. “So if you do well on it you could get it, and you just write an essay and submit it. But for your math department that is more of a reflection on your character as well as your skills in that field. It’s like, a collective group at my school who know me as person who chose me as the best candidate. And so I feel like that most best reflects my character. And I’m really proud of that award.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306. Contact Jasz Garrett at jasz.garrett@juneauempire.com or (907) 723-9356.

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