“We’re kind of outside the box,” said Sarah Marino, Yakoosge Daakahidi principal, after the ceremony had ended.
The comment was in reference to the unique graduation ceremony, which is much more personalized than at schools with larger graduating classes — just 39 students made up the YDHS graduating class, or it could just as easily refer to the school’s position as Juneau’s alternative high school, which offers greater flexibility and options for credit recovery that the other high schools do not.
While much of the reason for the personalized ceremony is that only a few dozen students, rather than a hundred or so students, were marching across the stage Sunday, it is also because most students had overcome great obstacles to earn their diplomas.
Advisors who introduced students acknowledged stumbling blocks in education from homelessness to teen parenthood, difficult family situations and bullying, overcoming drug addiction and dealing with anger — all surmounted to earn a diploma and start the next phase of life. Advisors also acknowledged each student’s positive attributes and talents, from charm and vivacity to artistic ability.
Both keynote speakers for the ceremony, Kaa Joo Hein Jaleen J. Araujo, vice president and general counsel for Sealaska, and Mayor Merrill Sanford had words of encouragement and advice for the students.
“Be strong and be courageous,” Araujo said, echoed by San-ford’s “Be stong and have courage.”
Araujo spoke of growing up in Angoon, graduating in a class of 10 students and being faced with daunting statistics — only one student who had graduated from Angoon’s high school before her had earned a college degree. Many had left, but returned soon after. Araujo spoke of the difficulty of being away from family and her community, of staying up all night studying, but said, “The easier path would have been to just give up. It was not easy to ... fight against those obstacles.”
She added that “you can come from difficult circumstances and difficult statistics and be successful,” something she lives as a woman from Angoon serving a high level position with Sealaska.
Sanford also spoke of the future, saying with a tinge of humor, “I hate to inform you, but your learning is far from over.”
He offered them The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, from the book written by Stephen Covey and published in 1989, and also borrowed from the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska 2013 Assembly theme, “Hold each other up,” encouraging students to hold each other up, “as individuals, one on one, as family to family, as organization to organization, and as community to community.”
As the students were called to accept their diplomas, advisors’ anecdotes indicated that the students were working hard to live up to the words of the speakers. A box of tissues sat on the podium for those who might get teary-eyed — and some did.
A couple students chose to speak, to thank their teachers, family and others who had supported them. Daniella Fincher, donning a bedazzled cap, and Michael LeBlanc-Tweedy gave a voice to a class of grateful students, many of whom were referred to as soft-spoken, though one such student let out a victorious shout after accepting his diploma.
After the diplomas had been awarded by Marino, School Board President Sally Saddler and Juneau School District Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich, scholarships and awards were announced.
Fincher, who had earned a 4.0 GPA, took home seven scholarships and awards, with Dylyn Peterson taking home three. Other students awarded with scholarships were Triston Colter, Samson Matafeo and Abigayle Simons. Still others earned awards, including Simons, Sheryl Shorty, Dustin Rumfelt, Desiray Reyes, Eric Rivera and Robert Quick.
Each student who graduated, with or without awards, some early, some after great difficulty, can be proud to have taken a valuable step toward a bright future in completely their high school education.