A screenshot from the Kenai Peninsula College graduation ceremony shows an August 2019 photo of Kenai Peninsula College faculty and staff. The May 7, 2020 ceremony was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Screenshot)

A screenshot from the Kenai Peninsula College graduation ceremony shows an August 2019 photo of Kenai Peninsula College faculty and staff. The May 7, 2020 ceremony was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Screenshot)

‘Resilience and ability to overcome unbelievable odds’

Kenai Peninsula College graduates students from both campuses — virtually

After four years of working in construction, Trevor Earll was tired of it. He said he’d just been laid off and remembered his dad, who had recently died, said he thought Trevor would do well in college. So two weeks before the semester started in 2017, Earll made an “impulsive decision” and signed up to take some classes at Kenai Peninsula College.

On Thursday, Earll’s valedictorian speech aired on the college’s virtual graduation. He was among the 34 students graduating from the college’s process technology program. He said he never thought becoming a valedictorian was ever a possibility for him.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

In a prerecorded video the college put together this week, faculty and students from both the Kenai River Campus and the Kachemak Bay Campus spoke in a virtual commencement ceremony aired on the college’s website, Facebook Live and YouTube. It’s the college’s 50th commencement ceremony. A slideshow of graduate’s photos, names and their earned degrees broke up the speeches in the virtual ceremony.

Kenai Peninsula College Director Gary Turner kicked off the commencement ceremony, congratulating 2020 graduates on their “resilience and ability to overcome unbelievable odds.” Turner’s message to this class was to have students “look in the rear view mirror tonight and then charge into the future tomorrow.”

“Remember how you got to this point and how you got here,” Turner said during his opening remarks.

Next, UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen said the 2020 graduates, which she called the “COVID-19 class,” would not soon be forgotten. She told graduates that “today is the culmination of your dreams.”

Kachemak Bay Campus valedictorian Amber Grady lived in Homer for a time with her husband, who travels for work in the U.S. Coast Guard, and their five children. It was actually through her children that she got started back on a path of higher education. One of her kids came home one day with a flyer for free basic adult education classes at the local campus.

At first, Grady wasn’t sure what direction she wanted to go in, she told the Homer News.

“I just wanted to pursue my education,” she said.

She decided she wants to go into occupational therapy. Now that she has her associate’s degree from KBC, she’s embarking on a Bachelor of Science in psychology in Nebraska. For someone who’s been taking courses online for a long time now, Grady said the transition to distance learning as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t very difficult for her, but she could see how it affected her other classmates.

Grady took a number of in-person classes at KBC that allowed her to then transition to online courses. At first, she was intimidated, she said. She hadn’t been in school since 1996. But the professors and staff at KBC embraced her and set her up with the skills she needed to be successful, Grady said.

“I was able to build my confidence,” she said. “… They set me up so I wouldn’t fail. So when I went to continue from a distance, I had all the tools and the skills.”

Grady said she was surprised to learn she was the valedictorian at Kachemak Bay Campus. She’s grateful for the virtual commencement ceremony, being now in Nebraska.

“This opened up a door for me to participate when I wouldn’t have been able to,” she said.

During her valedictorian remarks Thursday, Grady noted that achieving this particular goal was no easy feat for herself and her fellow graduates.

“This was not an easy task,” she said. “You studied hard, juggled busy lifestyles and kept a steady balance to earn your degree,” she said.

Grady noted that, whether or not graduates ever shared a classroom (or virtual classroom) together, they were now being connected far and wide by this virtual commencement ceremony. She thanked all the family members, friends, educators and staff for their help, support and, when it was needed, laughter.

“A lot has changed within the last couple months,” Grady said. “Most of us are experiencing uncertainties about our future. We are often told to keep sight of our future as we work towards our goals. Yes, we can still do this, but don’t allow it to consume you. Have faith that you will find your way to accomplish these milestones.”

In the meantime? Take a deep breath, she said.

“And focus on the positive energy that surrounds you,” Grady said. “Remember that you are not alone. Check in with you family, friends, mentors and community members. Stay connected.”

The ceremony hosted two keynote speakers — President and CEO of Anchorage Economic Development Corporation Bill Popp and Kachemak Bay Campus adjunct professor and author Rich Chiappone.

Bill Popp talked about his experience moving from Anchorage to the peninsula 37 years ago, where he raised his family for 25 years before going back to Anchorage. He said the Kenai Peninsula still holds an important place in his heart. Popp said every graduate at KPC is an example of success and encouraged graduates to become a “leader in everything you do.”

“You now have knowledge and skills that will give you many advantages in your future,” Popp said. “… Alaska needs you now more than ever.”

The graduates of Kenai Peninsula College represent a large swath of circumstances, whether they be working parents, fresh out of high school or returning to education after a long break. Chiappone, who teaches in the low-residency MFA program offered by the University of Alaska and has several times been featured as a speaker in the annual Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, spoke about his own nontraditional route to a college education.

He spoke of his father who, after graduating high school early to join the military in 1941, made his way through higher education when World War II was over while working as a security guard. Chiappone’s father was the first member of his family to graduate from college.

“I was supposed to be the second,” he said. “That didn’t happen.”

Chiappone said he entered college right after high school in 1966, and “almost immediately” flunked out. He did not earn his undergraduate degree until 1991.

“It took me a quarter of a century to accomplish what most of you just did in two, or three, or four years, and I wasn’t faced with anything as dire as this,” he said, referencing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Chiappone told the graduates about what’s known as a “bad beat” in professional poker playing.

“A bad beat happens when a player is dealt a really good hand of cards, but because of completely uncontrollable bad luck, they lose that hand anyhow,” he said.

COVID-19 is a bad beat, and it’s the bad luck that fell upon this year’s graduates in their final semester, Chiappone said.

“But you didn’t let that become a bad beat,” he said. “You didn’t let it beat you.”

Also quoting the film “Men In Black” and Jim Morrison of the Doors, Chiappone repeatedly told the graduates that they are part of a big moment in history.

“Months ago when the director of the college, Dr. Reid Brewer, asked me to speak to you on this truly historic occasion — and I say historic because this is a graduating class of students who could not be stopped by a catastrophic global pandemic — I pictured a room full of smiling new graduates bathed in the sunlight streaming into the beautiful Kachemak Bay Campus commons,” Chiappone said. “I did not picture being alone in my spare bedroom talking to a machine.”

He left the graduates with one last quote, this time from the film “Galaxy Quest.”

“Never give up, never surrender.”

Two valedictorians, Raleigh Van Natta and Earll, from the Kenai River Campus were chosen to speak at the ceremony — one for arts and science disciplines and another for business and industry. In his remarks, Van Natta said it’s OK to not be called to be a leader.

“It’s OK to ask for help,” he said.

He encouraged his fellow graduates that tough times will end, saying “we have already proved ourselves capable.” He told fellow graduates that “small acts of kindness and love” will make their communities a better place.

“Not everyone can contribute sweeping acts of heroism and bravery or strokes of unparalleled brilliance,” Van Natta said. “But, everyone can make a difference no matter where they are, no matter how small.”

During his valedictorian speech, Earll talked about “one of the best classes he’s ever had,” which was a night math class he attended after working as a welder. Earll said he didn’t quite know what to expect from college and anticipated he would be taking most of his classes online. He said he was expecting to walk in — wearing his work clothes “covered in metal shavings and soot” — to a classroom of “kids,” but was surprised to see a mix of students who were older adults, working adults and young people.

“Even after being out of school for four years, it felt normal,” Earll told the Clarion.

It’s always been Earll’s career goal to work for ConocoPhillips. He said he’s been interested in the oil and gas industry since learning about his uncles’ experiences working for ConocoPhillips. However, on the day he turned in his last assignment, oil prices crashed below zero.

“It was pretty disheartening,” he told the Clarion. “This is not what I was expecting.”

While Earll said he’s feeling relieved about extra free time, he’s “sad” his hopes of interning with ConocoPhillips didn’t pan out this summer. Earll told the Clarion he’s hopeful his degree will be useful in the near future, in a post-COVID-19 world.

Earll credits his teachers at Kenai Peninsula College for accommodating his work and family life and giving him the time to be successful. Earll said he appreciated the advice his teacher Henry Haney, offered him in his college career.

Kachemak Bay Campus Director Reid Brewer gave the closing statements at Thursday’s virtual commencement, his very first as the campus director, having started the job in June 2019.

“And fortunately for you, this will be the shortest talk I ever give,” he said.

Brewer said the path the graduates are on all started the same — with a dream or a wish that they followed. This is just the beginning, though. The graduates now have the opportunity to launch into another degree, a job or anything they want. To illustrate that point, Brewer quoted a passage from the Dr. Seuss book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

Now is the time, Brewer told the graduates, to reflect on those next steps, whatever they may be, and to reflect on all the people who helped them get to this moment.

The college graduated students with 36 associate of arts degrees, 41 associate of applied science degrees, nine one-year certificates, 28 GED certificates, 34 state welding certifications and 18 other University of Alaska degrees.

Reach Victoria Petersen at vpetersen@peninsulaclarion.com. Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

Trevor Earll, a 2020 graduate and valedictorian at Kenai Peninsula College, poses in a cap and gown for a virtual commencement ceremony, May 7, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Trevor Earll)

Trevor Earll, a 2020 graduate and valedictorian at Kenai Peninsula College, poses in a cap and gown for a virtual commencement ceremony, May 7, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Trevor Earll)

A screenshot of Kenai Peninsula College Director Gary Turner offering initial remarks during the school’s 50th annual commencement ceremony for the 2020 graduating class, which was done virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, May 7, 2020, near Soldotna, Alaska.

A screenshot of Kenai Peninsula College Director Gary Turner offering initial remarks during the school’s 50th annual commencement ceremony for the 2020 graduating class, which was done virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, May 7, 2020, near Soldotna, Alaska.

Amber Grady, the valedictorian for Kachemak Bay Campus’ spring 2020 graduating class, addresses her fellow graduates in this screenshot of the virtual commencement ceremony for both KBC and the Kenai River Campus of Kenai Peninsula College on Thursday, May 7 2020. (Image by Megan Pacer/Homer News)                                Amber Grady, the valedictorian for Kachemak Bay Campus’ spring 2020 graduating class, addresses her fellow graduates in this screenshot of the virtual commencement ceremony for both KBC and the Kenai River Campus of Kenai Peninsula College on Thursday, May 7 2020. (Image by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

Amber Grady, the valedictorian for Kachemak Bay Campus’ spring 2020 graduating class, addresses her fellow graduates in this screenshot of the virtual commencement ceremony for both KBC and the Kenai River Campus of Kenai Peninsula College on Thursday, May 7 2020. (Image by Megan Pacer/Homer News) Amber Grady, the valedictorian for Kachemak Bay Campus’ spring 2020 graduating class, addresses her fellow graduates in this screenshot of the virtual commencement ceremony for both KBC and the Kenai River Campus of Kenai Peninsula College on Thursday, May 7 2020. (Image by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

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