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'That's history': UAS sets record for Native graduates

57 Natives graduated this year

Posted: May 5, 2014 - 12:04am
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The Wooch.een dance group, including graduate Mallory Story, left, waits to go on during the annual Alaska Native Graduation Celebration on Sunday in the Egan Library at the University of Alaska Southeast.  KATIE MORITZ | JUNEAU EMPIRE
KATIE MORITZ | JUNEAU EMPIRE
The Wooch.een dance group, including graduate Mallory Story, left, waits to go on during the annual Alaska Native Graduation Celebration on Sunday in the Egan Library at the University of Alaska Southeast.

For most college students, a book bag holds everything needed to make it through the day. For Nae Brown, a diaper bag was also necessary.

Brown is one of 57 Alaska Natives who graduated from a UAS campus this year — a group that set a record as the largest the university has ever seen. But while she earned her degree in Alaska Native languages and studies, she also balanced other important parts of her life: the birth of her daughter, Adeia, in 2012 and her marriage in 2013.

She said she was too busy to pause and realize how full her life had become.

“It was all pretty hectic,” she said. “It’s hard to fathom how I was doing it.”

But, after five years of being a student, Brown was presented with her degree Sunday.

“It’s very surreal; it’s hard to imagine how it’s happening,” she said. She said she was supported through her years as a student and mother by her parents, sister and husband, who all attended Sunday’s graduation celebrations at the university. It also helped that Adeia was a particularly good baby, Brown said.

“She slept and I studied and I got through that semester,” she said of her first months with her daughter.

Adeia, dressed in a tutu, accompanied her mother to the stage at the annual Alaska Native Graduation Celebration in UAS’ Egan Library, where Brown was honored as a future Alaska Native teacher. She earned her bachelor’s degree with the goal of earning a master’s in teaching. She said she wants to teach “anybody who wants to learn” about Native culture and language. Brown is one of three graduates who received UAS’ first degrees in Alaska Native languages and studies this year.

Tlingit elder Marie Olson said she could hardly believe what she was seeing as she looked out over the 18 Native graduates and their friends and families that filled the library.

“I have never heard or seen so many Alaska Natives graduate and I have been on campus since 1972,” she said. “I never thought I would be able to address a group of people in my language... That’s history. That’s something I never thought would happen.”

UAS’ Alaska Native languages and studies program has taken off over the past four years, UAS Chancellor John Pugh said, going from just a few interested students to a full-fledged degree, with credit mostly due to an engaged student body who fought for the classes. Vice Chancellor Joe Nelson asked everyone in the audience to keep the group of Native alumni growing — recruit young Native people to attend UAS. He said the new residence hall is aimed at attracting and keeping more students, including Native students.

“Help us fill that building with a bunch of Native 18-year-olds,” he said.

UAS also broke records this year with the size of its graduating class. More than 680 students from the Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka campuses graduated with 787 degrees this year, up from 557 graduates in 2013. About 110 graduates and their families and friends packed the UAS Student Recreation Center to walk the stage and get their hands on their diplomas. They also listened to a commencement address by Dave Hunsaker, a playwright, novelist and musician. He told his story of coming to Alaska, and reminded graduates to never forget this place, no matter where they end up.

“There is nothing passive about Alaska,” he said. “All of us in this room have chosen this place for this moment... No matter where you go... keep and cherish your identity as an Alaskan, however you define it.”

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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