From GED certificates to associate degrees, this year’s graduates from Kenai Peninsula College displayed a wide array of educations, many of them balancing work and families at the same time.
Many of the more than 150 graduates walked across the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium stage Thursday night to cheers and applause from their peers, family and professors. Many plan to remain in academia to reach further milestones in their education, while others seek to use the fruits of their labor here on the central Kenai Peninsula.
Susan Lee and her daughter Renetta Watson both attended the college and earned the added treat of graduating and walking together. The pair have a close relationship and said going to college at the same time for similar degrees was fun and helpful for both of them.
“We think it’s pretty cool because not only do we get to walk — she’s like my best friend, you know?” Lee said of her daughter. “So we get the … best of both worlds. We got to take classes together which was a lot of fun.”
The mother and daughter recalled one History of Western Art course in particular that was made more enjoyable by the fact that they took it together.
“That one was really fun because we got to read the book to each other, and we usually ended up laughing,” Watson said.
“Studying together helped, I think, a lot,” Lee added. “And sometimes we were studying at midnight so it was OK because we were in the same house.”
Now that she has her Associate of Applied Science degree in digital art, Lee plans to retire from working at the college and move to Mexico where she wants to start her own graphic design business.
Watson, who received her Associate of Arts degree, will be married in Mexico at the home the family owns there next year. She is moving to Anchorage and plans to work toward a bachelor’s degree in biology.
“I think it was actually kind of a surprise when we found out that we were going to be graduating together,” Watson said. “It just lined up perfectly.”
Also graduating with Associate of Arts degrees were Keegan Long, of Michigan, and Emily Berry, of Kenai.
Both said the small-town feel of Kenai Peninsula College was preferable to them over larger schools they attended in the past.
Long went to Central Michigan University while she was a member of the U.S. Army, in communications.
She chose to finish up her education at KPC, and will go on to get a bachelor’s degree in art.
“I’ve always wanted to do something creative,” Long said. “I went back and forth.”
Berry plans to continue her education to get a bachelor’s degree in business and management.
“This is more kind of like a milestone for me, to be able to celebrate something,” she said.
Berry attended a large university in North Dakota before coming to KPC, and agreed the community college was a better fit.
“(It’s) the small feel, and feeling like you get to know people,” she said. “And the face-to-face stuff — it’s so nice to have people who really care.”
Jayce Robertson of Soldotna graduated in December 2015 and is already employed, but still wanted to walk at his graduation ceremony.
After 10 years working in oil and gas and commercial construction, he came to KPC for its “nationally recognized process technology program,” he said.
“I got tired of using my back and wanted to use my brain,” he joked. “(I) went back to school, and everything fell right into place perfectly.”
Robertson began applying for jobs before he graduated and has been employed since February.
“As a matter of fact I’m working nights right now, so I would have started my shift 35 minutes ago,” he said moments before the ceremony.
Kenai resident Terresa Zener has been working for four years toward her nursing degree through the University of Alaska Anchorage.
She applied to the program, which only accepts eight students each year, after two years of taking prerequisite courses, she said.
After all that work, it was special for Zener to have her husband, sister and two daughters attend her graduation ceremony, she said.
“You know, originally I wasn’t planning on walking because nurses have a pinning ceremony that’s really important to us, but having two kids, I think it’s very important that they saw me walk after I graduated,” Zener said. “And they should have been on the stage with me. They put up with a lot over the last four years with me going to school full-time.”
Zener hopes to be licensed by the state by June 15 and to start work as a registered nurse.
Several graduates from KPC’s paramedic technology program are already set to put their skills to use at Central Emergency Services, such as gradate Darren Finley.
He said getting to continue fostering the relationship formed with his classmates will be helpful.
“For Luke and Becca and I, we get to continue to work with each other, so we have a pretty good bond from school and now we’re going to have a career that we get to continue to work with each other,” he said.
One graduate got a surprise during the Thursday ceremony. Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart, the rural and Native student services coordinator at the college, was stopped in her tracks when members of the audience began playing a song on the drums as she crossed the stage. She had no idea they were going to do it, she said.
“It meant a lot,” Shaginoff-Stuart said. “I was, like, overwhelmed, but it was like my community supporting me, so it made me feel really, really great.”
Shaginoff-Stuart graduated with a Masters degree in Applied Linguistics from University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“I’m going to use what I learned and really put it to practice,” she said.
Soldotna resident Jonathan Bruxvoort was this year’s valedictorian.
He graduated with an Associate of Arts degree, and plans on heading across the pond to study at an international Bible school.
“Mostly I want to learn more about the Bible and God, and my brother and sister have both gone to Bible schools internationally so I kind of have a legacy there,” Bruxvoort said.
The 19-year-old said professors at KPC make up an aspect of the schools that makes it special and memorable.
“(It’s) the really amazing teachers that are just supportive, and they’re willing to help you when you’re not understanding things,” Bruxvoort said. “They genuinely want to have relationships and get to know you.”