Graduates Emily Hatley, Lara Millette, Autumn Levy, Rosaline Westfall, Rylee Johnson and Jarvis Evans throw their caps in the air after their commencement ceremony held Sunday afternoon at the University of Alaska Southeast. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Graduates Emily Hatley, Lara Millette, Autumn Levy, Rosaline Westfall, Rylee Johnson and Jarvis Evans throw their caps in the air after their commencement ceremony held Sunday afternoon at the University of Alaska Southeast. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

UAS celebrates annual graduation ceremony

Indigenous students were honored in annual Native Graduation Celebration.

Over 90 graduates walked across the stage following the spring 2023 commencement ceremony at the University of Alaska Southeast’s Juneau campus. The event, held on Sunday, was the university’s 52nd annual commencement.

The ceremony was overflowing with friends and family who donned large smiles as the multi-hour event took place. In total, 391 Juneau students received their degrees.

Joining the newly named alumni departing UAS following commencement was Chancellor Karen Karey, who will retire at the end of June. The spring graduation ceremony marked the last she will attend while in her leadership role.

University of Alaska Southeast Chancellor Karen Karey congratulates graduates at the 2023 commencement ceremony held Sunday afternoon. Karey will retire from her role at the end of July. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

University of Alaska Southeast Chancellor Karen Karey congratulates graduates at the 2023 commencement ceremony held Sunday afternoon. Karey will retire from her role at the end of July. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Áakʼw Ḵwáan Elder Fran Houston gave the traditional welcome and spoke to the graduates directly.

“I want to say congratulations to each and every one of you beautiful, beautiful people,” Houston said.

Elizabeth Autumn Dawn Ferguson switches her tassel alongside other students to signify their status as graduates at the commencement ceremony for University of Alaska Southeast Sunday afternoon. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Elizabeth Autumn Dawn Ferguson switches her tassel alongside other students to signify their status as graduates at the commencement ceremony for University of Alaska Southeast Sunday afternoon. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Gáanax Sháa Gloria Eyon walks down the aisle as faculty and family cheer after the 2023 University of Alaska Southeast commencement ceremony Sunday afternoon. Eyon graduated with an Associates of Arts in Northwest Coast Indigenous Arts. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Gáanax Sháa Gloria Eyon walks down the aisle as faculty and family cheer after the 2023 University of Alaska Southeast commencement ceremony Sunday afternoon. Eyon graduated with an Associates of Arts in Northwest Coast Indigenous Arts. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Karey also gave a short speech congratulating the group before presenting Chilkat weaver Anna Brown Ehlers with an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, an honor bestowed to people in the community who exemplify a significant and lasting contribution to the university, to the state of Alaska or to the individual’s discipline or profession.

Karey said Ehlers has played a vital role in anchoring Indigenous cultural traditions of art and textiles for both the present day and for future generations.

Chilkat weaver Anna Brown Ehlers (left) gives a speech at the 2023 University of Alaska Southeast commencement ceremony Sunday afternoon as Chancellor Karen Karey (right) holds Ehler’s honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts she was bestowed during the event. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Chilkat weaver Anna Brown Ehlers (left) gives a speech at the 2023 University of Alaska Southeast commencement ceremony Sunday afternoon as Chancellor Karen Karey (right) holds Ehler’s honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts she was bestowed during the event. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Student speaker Kali Spencer, who received her Bachelor of Liberal Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, spoke about how graduation feels like her first time jumping into the shockingly cold waters of Auke Lake as a freshman. She spoke about the close bonds and fond memories that came from that experience, even though it seemed daunting at the time.

Student speaker Kali Spencer, who received her Bachelor’s of Liberal Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, shares memories and advice to fellow graduates at the 2023 University of Alaska Southeast commencement ceremony Sunday afternoon. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Student speaker Kali Spencer, who received her Bachelor’s of Liberal Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, shares memories and advice to fellow graduates at the 2023 University of Alaska Southeast commencement ceremony Sunday afternoon. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

“While things may change after today we will have these memories, and while it may seem like something small at the moment, looking back on it I know all these small things are what going to mean the most to me moving forward,” she said. “So that’s what I’m going to do tonight, I’m going to jump in a lake. I might cry, I might laugh, I might be worried about what’s going to happen next — but I’m going to jump. Because I know if I don’t jump, if I don’t take that leap, I’ll never know what’s waiting for me below the surface.”

In closing, UA President Pat Pitney said she is excited to see what the students do moving forward, and what their impact in Alaska or anywhere else in the world will be.

“No matter where the future takes you, you are well prepared to have a positive impact on your family, on your community and in our state,” she said. “Alaska is better off today because of your dedication, tenacity and commitment.”

University of Alaska President Pat Pitney congratulates University of Alaska Southeast graduates at the 2023 commencement ceremony held Sunday afternoon. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

University of Alaska President Pat Pitney congratulates University of Alaska Southeast graduates at the 2023 commencement ceremony held Sunday afternoon. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Before the commencement ceremony, the university also hosted its Annual Native Graduation Celebration at the Egan Library where Indigenous graduating students were invited along with their families to celebrate their accomplishments.

This year, 75 Indigenous students graduated from the UAS campuses combined. The event included a traditional performance by a Southeast Alaska dance group, special gifts and speeches given by Alaska Native leaders and professors at the university.

Faculty and dancers hand out gifts of water and body butter to graduates and family members during the Annual Native Graduation Celebration at the Egan Library Saturday morning before commencement. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Faculty and dancers hand out gifts of water and body butter to graduates and family members during the Annual Native Graduation Celebration at the Egan Library Saturday morning before commencement. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Speakers included professor of Alaska Native languages at UAS, X’unei Lance Twitchell, who shared remarks honoring the students, faculty and ongoing Karey for the hard work and dedication to the university.

“I think of all these people who had wonderful things to share with us, things to think about to try to clear pathways for Indigenous peoples in education, which historically has been a place where our culture and language has been killed,” he said. “But now we think of it as a tool in our toolbox.”

At the end of the ceremony, Twitchell invited Karey to the stage where she was gifted a Tlingit name and was honored for her time and effort to grow the Alaska Native language program which is now offered for free. Twitchell said her name, Heidé Shuwataani, means “the one who opens doors.”

“We see you as one of us,” he said. “We’re honored for you to be with us.”

X’unei Lance Twitchell, professor of Alaska Native languages at UAS, performs a naming ceremony for retiring University of Alaska Southeast Chancellor Karen Karey during the Annual Native Graduation Celebration at the Egan Library Saturday morning before commencement. Her name, Heidé Shuwataani, means “the one who opens doors.” (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

X’unei Lance Twitchell, professor of Alaska Native languages at UAS, performs a naming ceremony for retiring University of Alaska Southeast Chancellor Karen Karey during the Annual Native Graduation Celebration at the Egan Library Saturday morning before commencement. Her name, Heidé Shuwataani, means “the one who opens doors.” (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

In an interview with the Empire after both of the ceremonies, Karey said she felt “mixed” feelings knowing that it was the last time she’d be a part of the ceremony in her role as chancellor.

“It’s really weird — part of me is excited, but part of me is really going to miss this,” she said. Not to worry though, Karey said she plans to attend future commencement ceremonies even after retirement, as she will continue to live in Juneau.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807.

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