Nearly 400 students are graduating high school on Sunday, and a select few will stand in front of their classmates and try to sum up the culmination of years of work.
In total, eight students will address their classmates at graduation, either as valedictorians or specially selected speakers. They’re set to talk about diverse topics, from the perceptions of the schools to individual struggles to shared experiences among classmates.
Nolan Hildebrand, Yaakoosgé Daakahídi
At one point, Nolan Hildebrand wasn’t even sure that he’d graduate from high school. Now the 16-year-old is graduating a year early.
At Thunder Mountain, Hildebrand didn’t mesh well with the teaching style and was struggling in school. Midway through his sophomore year, Hildebrand transferred to Yaakoosgé Daakahídi Alternative High School, and has thrived.
Even before transferring, Hildebrand saw other students or people in the community stereotyping students at Yaakoosgé as outcasts and troublemakers. Hildebrand remembers that once he enrolled at Yaakoosgé, he looked down upon and harassed by others about going there.
He aspired to be a graduation speaker, and ended up writing his speech about the misconceptions that surround the school.
“It’s about the reputation of the school,” Hildebrand said of his speech. “Most people look at us with a bad stereotype, like criminals and thugs, but not everyone’s like that. Just because we have the word ‘alternative’ on our school, people think that we’re different and that we’re bad or not up to par, but it’s just for different learning styles.”
Yaakoosgé is a very positive place, Hildebrand said earlier this week, pointing out that students are very close to teachers there. He has multiple teachers’ cellphone numbers, and can easily reach them if he has questions. When he takes the stage at Centennial Hall on Sunday to speak to his classmates and their family and friends, he wants to make it clear how positive of an environment the school is.
Hildebrand has applied to University of Alaska Southeast, hoping to go into business administration. If there’s a masters program at University of Alaska Fairbanks, he said he’d like to end up there. The next step, though, is getting in front of his classmates and trying to say something memorable.
“This is something that people are gonna take away, four years from now, or however long from now they’re gonna think about this,” Hildebrand said, “like, ‘Oh, he said that.’ So I want to say a message that people really stick with.”
Makoa Iha, Thunder Mountain
With a little help from his classmates, Makoa Iha has tweaked his graduation speech since his first draft.
Iha applied to be Thunder Mountain’s third graduate speaker (the other two — Kyung Li and Justin Sleppy — are valedictorians), giving his speech to gathered senior student government members. They selected him to speak, and he then began to crowdsource a new part of his speech. He went around to various classmates and asked them which memories stood out to them from the past four years.
“I wanted to say, we had a great opportunity and we all grew not only as individuals but as a group,” Iha said. “A lot of different memories that we share shape us and take us on to where we’re going next.”
He said this group of graduates has grown close over the years, from early childhood on. One of the aspects that makes this class distinctive, Iha pointed out, is one that will certainly make parents at the ceremony feel a little older.
“The class of 2017 was really the last class that was born before 2000, in 1998, 1999, so we’re the last of the millennials,” Iha said. “So that’s something I wanted to put in there.”
Following graduation, Iha will attend Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. He’s still keeping his options open, but might pursue law school eventually.
Sunday’s ceremony, held at 4 p.m. at Thunder Mountain’s main gym, will mark the end of an important part of his classmates’ lives and the beginning of another.
“It’s weird to know that I’m not gonna be seeing everyone every day again anymore,” Iha said, “but it’s also really exciting because everyone’s going their own direction and all that.”
Allison Ireland-Haight, Juneau-Douglas
This isn’t the first time that Allison Ireland-Haight has wanted to speak at one of her graduation ceremonies.
“In eighth grade, I wanted to do it,” Ireland-Haight said, “but I didn’t really feel comfortable doing it, so this year I decided to step out of my comfort zone and do it.”
Prior to that school year, in 2012, Ireland-Height’s older sister Savannah Cayce died in a collision on Auke Lake. Then, when Ireland-Haight was a junior, her mother died. In dealing with those losses, Ireland-Haight leaned on friends, family and classmates, who she’ll address Sunday.
The speech, which she’ll deliver at 7 p.m. at Juneau-Douglas’ main gym, centers around learning from those losses.
“It was kind of about that, and just, you don’t want to have regrets,” Ireland-Haight said.
Ireland-Haight hopes to apply those experiences not only in Sunday’s speech but also in the next phase of her life. She’s attending the University of Arizona in the fall, looking to go into psychology and counseling after the help she’s received over the years.
The past few years, she’s noticed how close her class has gotten, not only with Juneau-Douglas classmates but also with students at the other high schools. Though her classmates can be difficult at times, Ireland-Haight is proud to be one of them.
“They’re pains in the butt, honestly,” Ireland-Haight said, “but I love this class. I wouldn’t change graduating with anybody else. They’re always all here for each other.”
Know & Go
YDHS: 1 p.m., Centennial Hall
TMHS: 4 p.m., TMHS main gym
JDHS: 7 p.m., JDHS main gym
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2271.