University of Alaska Southeast doesn’t name a valedictorian, but students and faculty nominate students to speak at commencement. Of the four finalists, Chancellor Richard Caulfield chose marine biology major JoMarie Alba.
Alba has been all over the world, but keeps finding herself back in Alaska. She was raised in Ketchikan, but her Filipino roots have been a driving force in her success. She’ll address her classmates at Sunday’s commencement ceremony, and spoke to the Empire about what draws her to traveling, her academic success, her flip phone and more.
You’ve traveled extensively, from Southeast Asia to driving across the United States. Do you have a favorite place you’ve been?
It’s hard to say which place is your favorite when everything is new and exciting. I just like to travel, and I like to be in a place where I don’t know people, just to remind myself — it sounds a little bad — but I like traveling because I’m reminded of how insignificant I am. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that, where you’re like, “I’m not as big of a deal as I think I am.” Nobody knows who I am here, nobody knows what I’ve done, all I am is just some person who’s visiting a place that they live.
After being all over the world, what keeps bringing you back to Alaska?
I mean, look at it. Look how beautiful it is today. I was lucky enough to be raised in Southeast Alaska. Growing up, I didn’t like it obviously. I don’t think anybody likes where they grew up. Then I spent some time away and I realized how different a person can be just being from Alaska or Southeast Alaska. Then you miss certain things. You miss the trees, you miss access to the ocean, you miss being able to walk into the woods and not see people for a while.
I noticed you still have a flip phone. Why is that?
I’m poor. (Laughs) There’s that, and also to me, I don’t like what smart phones are doing to society, how it decreases a person’s ability to introduce or have a conversation with a stranger. There’s a part of your brain that gets developed, that is related to your ability to converse, to strike up a conversation or to talk, and that’s a skill. Like anything, if you don’t utilize that, it gets atrophied, so you lose that skill.
Why do you think you’ve been so successful academically? What’s your secret?
My parents are most definitely an inspiration. Sometimes when things are hard, I do think about the sacrifices my parents make. My parents are from the Philippines, and they didn’t get to attend college and they made the sacrifice of wanting to come to another country for the sake of my sisters and I having a better opportunity than what was available for us in the Philippines. My mom didn’t see her parents for 10 years … what’s sitting in a library for 10 hours having to study compared to not seeing family for years?
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