Robert Yates, left, receives his certificate for indigenous language teaching during the commencement ceremony for University of Alaska Southeast on May 1, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Robert Yates, left, receives his certificate for indigenous language teaching during the commencement ceremony for University of Alaska Southeast on May 1, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

UAS returns to in-person commencement

Students walked the stage into the next phase of life in person once more.

The University of Alaska Southeast’s graduation ceremony was the first in-person ceremony since the pandemic upended tradition across all fields of human endeavor. The event, held on Sunday, was the school’s 51st annual commencement.

“Our students and our world are changing rapidly. We have prepared you for your role. You are ready for your role,” said Paul Layer, vice president for academics, students and research for the University of Alaska system, in the charge to the graduates. “Remember where you come from. Remember the lessons. And continue to learn.”

[What’s old is new again: A Crystal Saloon returns to Juneau]

The commencement speaker at the first ceremony was Robert Yates, a Craig resident also known by one of his Haida names, Dag júus. In addition to being the first student to receive an Indigenous language teaching certificate at UAS, presented during the second ceremony, he taught the Haida launguage , Xaad Kíl, at UAS as well as at Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska via Zoom during lunch hours.

In an interview between the two ceremonies, Yates said his university experience “was really different from how it was supposed to be” because of the pandemic.

Students sit after receiving their diplomas at the commencement ceremony for University of Alaska Southeast on May 1, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Students sit after receiving their diplomas at the commencement ceremony for University of Alaska Southeast on May 1, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

“We were promised immersion. We had zero immersion. We were all separated because of the pandemic. There was no group study,” Yates said. “The first winter was particularly hard because I felt so isolated,” Yates said. “I had to fight through that. There was a little bit of despair, I think.”

Among the difficulties Yates said he encountered was being a student and a teacher at the same time resulted in the irony of not being able to get a required Haida credit as scheduled. Also, a lack of available instructors at UAS meant some remote classes had to be held via Zoom from a university in Canada and there were complications with an internship his first summer.

Sonia Ibarra stands as she receives her Ph.D in fisheries during the commencement ceremony for University of Alaska Southeast on May 1, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Sonia Ibarra stands as she receives her Ph.D in fisheries during the commencement ceremony for University of Alaska Southeast on May 1, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

“The summer was so unstructured I had to push just to get 300 language hours in,” he said. But Yates said making it to graduation day “is a great feeling” and he was able to joke about the abnormal experiences of his fellow students and instructors during his commencement speech.

The other guest speaker was undergraduate Annie Masterman, who received a bachelor’s degree in marine biology. Masterman spoke about the ocean and the close ties the Indigenous communities share with the vast deeps.

Student speaker Annie Masterman, who was receiving her bachelor’s degree, speaks during the commencement ceremony for University of Alaska Southeast on May 1, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Student speaker Annie Masterman, who was receiving her bachelor’s degree, speaks during the commencement ceremony for University of Alaska Southeast on May 1, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

“The ocean provides us the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the weather that waters our plants,” Masterman said in her address. “Our food is crucial to our identity. Personally, I love talking about good, sharing food, preparing food.”

In the final remarks at the first ceremony, Chancellor Karen Carey simply offered her congratulations to the graduates and thankfulness they were able to gather for a proper celebration.

“This is the first one we’ve had in two years and it’s just so wonderful,” she said to loud applause.

Students switch their tassels to signify their status as graduates at the commencement ceremony for University of Alaska Southeast on May 1, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Students switch their tassels to signify their status as graduates at the commencement ceremony for University of Alaska Southeast on May 1, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Traci Taylor, 32, a Juneau resident who received her master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis on natural resource policy, said as she plans for a future involving marine policy she feels she got a complete university experience despite the pandemic,

“I don’t think I missed anything,” Taylor said. “We had such a flexible and understanding institute that understood the madness. I feel more of a sense of community. We came together to pull through.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com. Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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