Graduates inspire with challenges, achievements, plans for future

“Tonight is all about you,” Dr. Allan Gee, Homer High School principal, told the graduates at Monday’s commencement ceremony. 

The same could be said at schools across the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District this week as high school seniors are handed their diplomas and tell their high school years good-bye.

Giving Homer High’s commencement address, teacher Matt Stineff encouraged the graduating students not to be discouraged by bad decisions they might make in their lives.

“Embrace what they teach you and let them lead you to a brighter place,” Stineff said.

The school’s concert choir, performing “Make This Place My Home,” offered the graduates this reminder: “Settle down, it’ll all be clear/Don’t pay no mind to the demons/They fill you with fear/The trouble it might drag you down/If you get lost, you can always be found.”

The Homer Flex graduation ceremony on Sunday honored the students and their accomplishments.

“These are four remarkable people. Few, but mighty,” said Principal Karen Wessel of the school’s graduating class.

In his comments to the students, Flex teacher Jeff Szarzi drew from “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss: “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So…get on your way!”

From the 80-plus students at Homer High to the single graduate at Port Graham, students are celebrating their achievements and successes and beginning a new chapter in their lives. The following 10 graduates from the southern Kenai Peninsula offer a view into the challenges these students have overcome, the plans they’re making for the future, the people who helped shape their lives and the advice they have for others.

Lydia Arndt, Homer

Connections valedictorian

Born in Homer, Lydia Arndt has been a Connections student since seventh grade. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s home-school program was a good fit with her focus on music and need for time to practice at home.

Lydia began playing the piano when she was 5. Her mother, Marlene, who also plays the piano, was her first music teacher.

At the age of 8, Lydia began lessons on the violin because “I wanted to learn something different and I liked the sound of the violin and thought it was a pretty instrument.”

The recipient of several scholarships, Lydia plans to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the fall, studying either music education or violin performance.

Selecting a college topped the list of challenges Lydia has faced. She chose UAF because of in-state tuition and the music program.

“I’ve talked to the violin teacher I’ll have and she’s really nice and has helped set me up with classes so I’m all registered,” she said. 

The biggest highlight in Lydia’s life has been two private recitals she gave, one when she was a freshman and one earlier this month.

“I put a lot of work into them and that was exciting,” she said.

In high school, her favorite subject was language arts. In the past couple of years she also has developed a love of writing, thanks to “a bunch of really good teachers.”

Adults who have had a positive impact in Lydia’s life include Joel Pietsch and Michael Shallock, two of her violin teachers; Nancy Kleine, a former Connections advisor; and her mother. She also expressed appreciation for her father, Quinton, and her siblings, Caleb, Jaclyn and Clayton, for their support.

Her advice to others:” Always strive to do your best and keep pushing forward. Don’t give up.” 


Ashley Freeman, Homer

Connections valedictorian

Ashley began her education at Paul Banks Elementary School but when health issues frequently kept her home, she switched to Connections. While that decision allowed her to keep up with her studies, it also had its challenges.

“It was very easy to just lay down or go play video games and procrastinate,” said Ashley. “Luckily, I’m a self-starter.”

After graduation and with some scholarship assistance, Ashley intends to study digital arts at Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College-University of Alaska Anchorage. Once she completes that course of study, she wants to pursue concept art for video games and movies, something she enjoys “because I like to tell a story and I like to make something more than a pretty picture.”

Ashley has put her knowledge of the digital world and computers to use as a part-time employee at Tech Connect. She also belongs to an online community of like-minded artists from across the United States and beyond.

Her creativity is fueled by her love of reading, which developed partly “because I was sick and I turned to reading to distract myself,” she said, adding that she read the entire Harry Potter series in a week and a half. 

While her role models have shifted with her interests, Ashley said she “would like to thank the Connections staff. They were always really understanding. They help whenever you feel lost, which, in homeschooling, can be quite often.” She also offered thanks to her mom, Dianna.

“I’m extremely lucky in the fact that Mom always supports me 110 percent in anything I want to do,” said Ashley. 

Ashley’s advice:“If you have to, take time off to find out what your passion is before you delve into a huge college education for something you don’t like.”


Kyle Van Alstine, Homer

Homer Flex School

Originally from Tucson, Ariz., Kyle Van Alstine arrived in Homer two years ago and enrolled at Flex at the advice of his sister and Flex graduate, Katlyn.

“It allows students to work at their own pace,” said Kyle. “You can work faster, slower, whatever it is.”

His favorite subjects include history, math, physics, government and Alaska studies. Principal Karen Wessel, the school’s faculty and staff and a program called “Fast Forward” have helped Kyle face one of his biggest challenges: reading and writing. “I’m dyslexic. … I’ll be saying one thing when I mean another. When I’m reading, I switch letters,” said Kyle.

With support and his own hard work, he added, “I can definitely see a change in my reading and writing.”

Kyle was recently awarded the Masonic Outstanding Student Award in recognition of his hard work, commitment and success.

Following graduation, Kyle is considering becoming a heating, ventilation and air conditioning service technician or following the footsteps of his father, Rene, in the movie industry. A Tucson movie project is gearing up to begin in November and Kyle may take advantage of his father’s connections. Here in Homer, he also has connections to the HVAC world through his stepfather, Larry.

Flex teachers Alex Koplin, Jeff Szarzi and Chris Brown got Kyle’s thanks for “keeping on me and making sure I got my work done. Each and every single one is a good person, a good teacher.”

He counts his aunt, the late Loretta Studwell, as the most influential person in his life.

“She was there when I really didn’t have anybody,” he said. “She was a real nice lady and taught me a lot value-wise and moral-wise.”

His biggest success?

“Graduating. … I look at it as a new start,” he said.

Kyle’s advice: “Work your butt off, keep your nose clean, stay away from the parties.”


Maggie Elaine Graham, Homer

Homer High School

All of Maggie Elaine Graham’s schooling has been in Homer, with the exception of kindergarten, which she attended in Ketchikan.

Talk of her favorite classes — art and language — faded quickly when Maggie began describing her plans for the future.

During July, she will intern for Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Washington, D.C. After spending August in Homer, Maggie heads to England to attend a seven-month program at the Capernwray Bible school. 

“I think it’s important to be set in your foundation, what you believe, what kind of person you want to be,” said Maggie of her desire to settle those issues before launching into life fully on her own.

In the fall of 2014, Maggie plans to enter the University of Alaska Anchorage to study “elementary education or something working with biotechnology or DNA forensics.”

For now, planning poses the biggest challenge: making sure her passport doesn’t expire, preparing for life in a different country and “I’m probably going to miss my friends a lot,” she said.  

A highlight for Maggie was how her class and the students of Homer High grew stronger and pulled together during the past year.

She credits her mom, Joyclyn, with “working really hard and supporting me,” and thanked her dad, Jeff, and the friends and teachers who provided encouragement. Among them was Shirley Gribble, Maggie’s sixth-grade teacher at West Homer Elementary School.

“I was kind of lazy and liked to pass notes and she’d catch us every time. Now, I can see that she forced us to work hard and we had a lot of fun in her class,” said Maggie.

Maggie’s advice: “Work hard and don’t slack at all until the very end … because it is definitely worth it and it sucks having to catch up at the last minute.”


Neonila Kojin, Nikolaevsk

Nikolaevsk High School

Born in Homer, Neonilla Kojin has grown up in the Russian Old Believer village of Nikolaevsk. After graduation, she plans on moving away from home to the Wasilla area to pursue training as a certified nurse aide.

“And I’m going to do some college classes on the side, when I start working at a CNA,” said Neonila. “Something in writing and art.”

That makes sense, since her favorite subjects are language arts and art. Painting, drawing, pottery, sculpture. Neonila likes it all.

Playing on Nikolaevsk’s basketball and volleyball teams has opened the door for Neonila to travel around the state to the communities of Nenana, Kakanok, Newhalen, Kodiak, Seldovia and Anchorage. Playing in sports also has given Neonila some of her best high school memories.

Although she has family and friends in the Wasilla and Palmer area, moving away from the familiar surroundings of Nikolaevsk is a big step. It is one Neonila eagerly anticipates.

“I’m super excited,” she said. “I’m becoming my own person and will be meeting new people.”

Heather Pancratz is Neonila’s favorite teacher at Nikolaevsk; not because Pancratz is easy going, but because she has high expectations for her students.

“She made me work really, really hard. More than I would ever work before,” said Neonila.

She credits the influence of her mother, Alexandra, for “raising me and teaching me right from wrong.”

Neonila’s advice: “Do the work. Have fun. Enjoy high school.”


Eric Mametieff, Nikolaevsk

Nikolaevsk High School

In 2008, Eric Mametieff moved to Nikolaevsk from Woodburn, Ore. During the summers, he commercial fished in False Pass and Cook Inlet. This will be his first summer to do long-line fishing with his uncle. It isn’t so much that he likes fishing, but the earnings, if it’s a good fishing year, are “definitely worth it,” said Eric.

In high school, the subjects that have held Eric’s interest have been writing — whenever he can write down stories and ideas — and physical education. He also has been on Nikolaevsk’s cross country, volleyball and basketball teams. Sports have allowed him to see other parts of Alaska. He has participated in events in Point Hope, Nenana,
Kotzebue, Anchorage and “everywhere, really.”

In the fall, he’s looking beyond Alaska, depending on how good fishing season is, to take the next step in his life.

“I want to spend some time going into a monastery,” said Eric. “There’s one in Arizona, one in Romania and one in Russia.” 

The length of time he plans to spend in a monastery is uncertain.

“I want to go and see if I like that kind of life,” he said. “If I like it, I’ll stay. It’s something I want to do. ”

If that doesn’t work, Eric has other options he’s considering.

“It’s between joining the military or going to the police academy and becoming a state trooper,” he said.

Eric has been challenged by “waking up, especially in the morning.” His most influential teacher has been Steve Klaich.

“He’s a very good role model for me in every way possible, with God and with how to be a man,” said Eric.

Eric’s advice:“Keep God in your life and wear deodorant.”


Kaylee Smith, Ninilchik

Ninilchik High School valedictorian

Life-long Ninilchik resident Kaylee Smith spends summers helping with the family business, Captain Steve’s Fishing Lodge. During the school year, she is a lifeguard for Ninilchik School’s elementary swim program.

Her favorite area of study: math.

“And then my English teacher’s pretty great, so I like English as well,” she said of teacher Barbara Denboer’s influence.

Next fall, Kaylee plans to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks and pursue a degree in biology, before going on to dental school to become a pediatric dentist, something she has wanted to be since she was 14. To learn more about that profession, Kaylee shadowed a pediatric dentist in Soldotna and is excited about an invitation to observe an upcoming oral surgery.

Aside from a death in the family a few years ago, Kaylee said she “hasn’t had a lot of heartaches and difficulties to deal with. Just overcoming the average high school drama stuff.” 

A Close-Up trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City is a highlight of her high school years. Her favorite part was meeting new people with whom she has maintained contact.

Playing on the Ninilchik girls’ basketball team allowed her to visit some of Alaska’s remote communities, among them Chevak.

“That was a big culture shock,” she said. “They’re not on the road system and we were driven to the school by snowmachine in minus-35 wind chill.”  

Her mom and dad, LeAnne and Steve Smith, as well as Ten Boer, have “been really supportive and helped me go through a lot,” said Kaylee. “Also, there’s Hunter Keogh, my boyfriend. He’s helped build my self-esteem and is always pushing me to do my best and reach my goals.”

Kaylee’s advice: Always do your best. And when you think that’s good, keep going.” 


Nikalai Norman, Port Graham

Port Graham High School

The small village of Port Graham has been Nikalai Norman’s home since birth. Almost. He was born in Homer.

Growing up in Port Graham provided him with good memories of “being around friends. There’s not really that many kids here. We’ll all pretty much cousins,” he said.

The village’s only 2013 high school graduate, Nikalai said his favorite subjects were science and physical education, but then added a bit more honestly, “Not really any.”

Playing on his school’s basketball team his junior and senior years allowed Nikalai to travel outside of Port Graham to other Alaska communities. Now, he’s making plans to head to Seward in the fall, attend AVTEC and become a certified welder. After that, he wants to explore employment possibilities in Alaska’s North Slope oil field. 

Welding appeals to him because of the opportunities it holds for “good paying jobs,” Nikalai said.

The biggest challenges he’s faced in school?

“Getting up on time for school at 9 a.m.,” he said, laughing.

Role models that have helped shape Nikalai’s life include his current and former teachers, Josh Tone, Shane Hill and Riley Justis.

“They taught me a lot about math and got me through high school,” he said.

In addition to their influence, Nikalai said he wanted to thank his mother, Becky, and his older brother, Travis, for all they’ve taught him.

Nikalai’s long-term goal is to return to Port Graham.

“It’s nice here,” he said. “You can be free.”


Nikalai’s advice: Keep going to school.” 


Polagia Basargin, Razdolna


Born in Homer and raised in Razdolna, Polagia Basargin’s favorite subject in school is history.

“Ancient, world history,” said Polagia, clarifying the time period she particularly enjoys studying.

She plans to continue exploring that subject and others next fall by taking courses at Kachemak Bay Campus and “seeing what I truly like.”

Being a Connections student allowed Polagia to keep up with her high school studies while traveling with her family. During the 2012-2013 school year, they made a three-month trip to Bolivia, South America, and visited in a Russian Old Believer village.

Although it was her second visit to the area — the first one was when she was a toddler — being in another culture was interesting.

“They speak Spanish. Everybody. When we went to town I didn’t understand anything,” said Polagia, who grew up with Russian as her fist language and English as her second. “Now I really want to learn Spanish. That will help me with my travels.” 

Like other graduates, she said the biggest challenge she has faced in her schooling was “getting up in the morning. It’s like pushing yourself. But if you want it, you have to push for it.”

Asked what the highlight of her schooling was, Polagia said everything else paled compared to graduation.

“I’m pretty excited about that,” she said. 

The youngest of 12 children in her family, Polagia said her sisters — Mavra, Maria, Anfisa, Zinaida and Kristina — have been her role models.

“They taught me to go for it,” she said. “They’re always encouraging me.”

When it comes to teachers who have been influential, she named Jennifer Sorensen.

“She believes in me,” said Polagia.

Polagia’s advice::Try your best, even when you think you’re going to fail. You’ll surprise yourself.


Devon Hilts, Seldovia


Born in Seattle, Devon Hilts’ journey in life has been a sometimes bumpy road. The first years of her life were spent in the foster care system. At the age of 4, Devon, who is of the Tlingit Eagle clan, was moved to Yakutat. She didn’t begin speaking until she was 5 years old.

It was in Yakutat that Devon met and was adopted by Laurel Hilts, and it is Hilts that Devon credits for having the most influence on her life.

“She took me in, dealt with my stubbornness and is my biggest supporter. She’s somebody that I look up to,” said Devon.

The Hilts family moved to Seldovia when Devon was in the fifth grade and she has been a Connections student since her sophomore year.

Following high school graduation, Devon plans to move to Soldotna and study social work at the Kenai River Campus, Kenai Peninsula College-University of Alaska Anchorage. 

“I’ve had a lot of trauma in my life, so I kind of wish someone had been there for me to help me with things. I want to be able to help kids, let them know they’re not alone, that there’s someone here to help,” she said.

Photography is another of Devon’s interests that she hopes to pursue.

In addition to her mom, Devon’s support group includes her friend Natalie Grimes and her grandmother, Sunni Hilts.

“(Natalie) gives me great advice and calms me down,” said Devon, adding that her grandmother is someone that “everybody loves.”

Devon said the key to overcoming the challenges in her life has been “not giving up on everything, not turning away from people. I’m finally happy and content with life. That was my biggest challenge.”

Devon’s advice:  “Never give up,” she said. “No matter how hard it is. Something good is going to come out of it. Have hope.”

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at

See related story, Valedictorians Rap

Connections valedictorian-Photo provided

Connections valedictorian-Photo provided

Ashley Freeman, Homer

Ashley Freeman, Homer

Connections valedictorian-Photo  provided

Connections valedictorian-Photo provided

Kyle Van Alstine, Homer

Kyle Van Alstine, Homer

Homer Flex School-Photo provided

Homer Flex School-Photo provided

Maggie Elaine Graham, Homer

Maggie Elaine Graham, Homer

Homer High School-Photo provided

Homer High School-Photo provided

Neonila Kojin, Nikolaevsk

Neonila Kojin, Nikolaevsk

Nikolaevsk High School-Photo provided

Nikolaevsk High School-Photo provided