‘You can do hard things’: Commencement address comes together

UA President Pat Pitney said she was humbled to be selected.

Pat Pitney, president of the University of Alaska system, will give the keynote address Sunday at the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé commencement. She said her remarks will focus on the future ahead of the graduates as well as the skills they learned during COVID. (Courtesy photo/University of Alaska Fairbanks)

Giving a commencement address is tricky in any year, but addressing the class of 2021 presents particular challenges as the world emerges from a year of pandemic-induced lockdowns and other life disruptions.

University of Alaska President Pat Pitney said she was humbled when asked to address the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé graduates as their keynote speaker at Sunday’s commencement.

“If they were asking Pat Pitney, I could say no,” she said in a phone interview Friday morning. “But they are asking the president of the university, so I must.”

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Pitney said she is focusing her speech on how much life the graduates have ahead of them and the important lessons they’ve learned from the adversity caused by COVD-19.

“In a lot of ways, the COVID year created these disruptions in day-to-day life, but it also narrowed the focus to what’s important,” she said. “Everyone spent more time with family and with key friends and realized how dependent they were on a smaller set of contacts.”

She also sees a silver lining from the challenges of distance learning. She said that a lack of in-person classes forced students to be direct communicators and to seek out information—two skills that will leave them in good stead for the future.

“Students had to be intentional. That skill, whether in college or on the job, is super-important,” she said.

In addition, Pitney said that she would use her speech to encourage students to get comfortable with the concept of personal evolution as they embark on post-high school endeavors.

“I want them to embrace the idea that you are going to be a different person five years from now and even different than that 10 years from there,” she said.

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Pitney said that part of her message will be that growth and challenge are essential parts of life and should not be avoided.

“Hard things are hard, and you can do hard things,” she said.

• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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