When she started college at the University of Alaska Anchorage in January 2000, one of Gillian Smith's biggest challenges was a patch of ice.
Having just concluded successful radiation treatments for a brain tumor, Smith was weak, unable to see normally and forced to walk with a cane. Going to college was a form of therapy, but to get there she had to traverse icy roads and ride a city bus.
Smith said she fell on the same frozen puddle nearly every day.
"It's been a long journey," said Smith, who later transferred to UAS and is graduating cum laude with an associate's degree in paralegal studies. "The first day of school I had to ride the bus and I was terrified. (I was scared at) the whole prospect of doing something on my own after so many months of therapy."
Smith and 210 other students from diverse backgrounds, concluding many different courses of study will graduate from the University of Alaska Southeast today during commencement ceremonies at Centennial Hall.
Spring commencement for the University of Alaska Southeast Juneau campus begins at 2 p.m. today in Centennial Hall.
Guest speaker is Elizabeth Arnold, national political correspondent for National Public Radio. Arnold started her career in public radio at KTOO in 1985, joined NPR's Washington bureau in 1991 and covered the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns.
Local author Jean Rogers, whose works include "King Island Christmas," will receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
Kim Porter and Gillian Smith are the student speakers.
The commencement ceremony is open to the public.
Smith was selected as one of two graduating students to speak during the ceremony, something she called "a cherry on the top" of a successful college experience.
For years, Smith said, she thought she wasn't smart enough to finish college. But with persistence and perseverance, she eventually achieved a semester of straight A's and built on that success.
"Boy, when you get that first 4.0 it's like blood to an animal," she said.
From here, Smith will let the career of her husband, Michael, guide her. He put advancement in the Coast Guard on hold so the family could stay in Juneau and she could complete schooling. Now, Smith said, it's her turn to let his goals come first.
"I wouldn't have gotten through it without my husband," she said. "He was the driving force; he was the encouragement."
Smith said her family, including children Olivia and Matt, pushed her to complete the degree. She said working toward that goal - and accomplishing it - has been therapeutic.
"I took the long way around, but college is where I always wanted to be," she said. "Realizing that you could do something you never thought you could do was just incredible."
Along with Smith, each of the other graduating seniors has traveled a unique path. Here are some of their stories:
Janice Jackson, bachelor of liberal arts-general studies
Jackson graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1977 and soon enrolled at the University of Washington. But as a single parent with responsibilities that went beyond books, things did not work out.
"I always felt, in the back of my mind, that I'd go back to school when the time was right," she said.
She earned an associate's degree from UAS Ketchikan in 1996, renewing her interest in completing a four-year degree. When she decided to go ahead with it in 2000, her husband, Richard, was hired as maintenance supervisor at UAS Juneau and they moved here - creating the perfect opportunity to start classes.
With the support of her family and Native organizations in Ketchikan and Juneau, Jackson fulfilled her goal - a degree with an emphasis on Northwest Coast art and history. She plans to enroll in the University of Alaska Fairbanks' rural development master's degree program, which she can complete by distance education.
Jackson said returning to campus as an older student was a bit intimidating.
"I was a little scared at first." she said. "These younger students are here, running around full of energy, making older students feel older."
But in the end, Jackson said, the experience was beneficial for all involved.
"It's been very enlightening for me," she said. "I've learned a lot from them, and I hope I've taught them something as well. ... Maybe that's the best part of going back to school as an older person - being together, you learn a lot from each other."
Angela and Brad Watts, associates of arts, cum laude
The Wattses came to UAS from Seward in spring 2000, seeking a campus where they could get the classes they wanted but study in a more personal atmosphere.
"You know all of your professors by their first name, and they know you," Angela said of UAS. "To have that intimacy, it's really nice."
The Wattses' work is not done. They will transfer their UAS credits to UAA toward four-year degrees; Angela plans to study social work and Brad will study geomatics, a field that includes land surveying and mapping. But they are glad to be finishing - together - the first half of their academic work.
"We're happy for each other," Brad said. "To see both of us completing at the same time is pretty cool. ... It's a nice way to complete a Southeast adventure."
Kim Porter, bachelor of liberal arts-general studies, cum laude
Porter's college philosophy is "involvement in everything, from student activities to being a teaching assistant."
Porter, who is active with the Whalesong student newspaper and a host of other groups, is one of a select group of students to complete a full four years at UAS. Porter grew up in Oregon and moved to Petersburg in high school. She came to UAS in part to stay close to home, and also because of the close-knit campus.
Porter said she appreciates the diversity of students at UAS.
"Sitting in the classroom with people from all different backgrounds, you really can learn something," she said. "You may not agree on everything, but you definitely will teach each other."
Porter, like Smith, will be a student speaker at today's commencement ceremony, a task she says is somewhat daunting.
"UAS has so many different students, and for only two students to stand up there to represent and inspire (the student body) - it's a big job," she said.
After graduation, Porter plans to take some time off, and then return to school - maybe for teacher's training or a medical-related field.
Leah Behrends, bachelor of science-biology, magna cum laude
Behrends started her college career thousands of miles away at Southwest Texas State University. When the opportunity to spend the spring 1999 semester at UAS opened up, she took it.
"By the time summer came, I decided I'd stay for the summer," she said. "At the end of the summer, I decided I'd stay for the fall."
After returning to Texas for one semester to tie up loose ends, Behrends returned to Juneau for the rest of her schooling. Here she met her fiance, Michael Heiman, a UAS master of arts student who also is graduating today. The two will marry this summer.
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