Kenai Peninsula Campus Director Gary Turner, left, reads a commendation awarding the title of Director Emerita to former Kachemak Bay Campus Director Carol Swartz, center, at the Kachemak Bay Campus commencement last Wednesday, May 8, 2019, at the Mariner Theatre in Homer, Alaska. Swartz retired last year. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News.)

Kenai Peninsula Campus Director Gary Turner, left, reads a commendation awarding the title of Director Emerita to former Kachemak Bay Campus Director Carol Swartz, center, at the Kachemak Bay Campus commencement last Wednesday, May 8, 2019, at the Mariner Theatre in Homer, Alaska. Swartz retired last year. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News.)

Kachemak Bay Campus commencement goes virtual

Like many other schools across the country, Kachemak Bay Campus had to get creative to honor this spring’s graduates in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has made traditional in-person graduation ceremonies impossible.

Kenai Peninsula College will host a virtual graduation ceremony at 6 p.m. Thursday. This is the campus’ 50th commencement ceremony, and will honor students from both the Kenai River Campus in Soldotna and the Kachemak Bay Campus. KBC’s valedictorian is Amber Grady, who will give a speech during the ceremony.

Rich Chiappone, a local writer and Kenai Peninsula College adjunct instructor, will represented KBC in one of two keynote addresses.

“Each participating graduate will be highlighted with a photo, a list of honors and some thoughts about their accomplishment,” according to an announcement from the local campus.

Also speaking will be Reid Brewer, director of the local campus. The public is invited to watch the commencement ceremony via Facebook live, at facebook.com/KenaiPeninsulaCollege. The event will be recorded and available for later viewing on Kenai Peninsula College’s YouTube channel.

Graduates will tune in to be celebrated from their own homes and, in Grady’s case, from a little further away. Though Grady is graduating with her Associate of Arts, she’s already taking courses in furtherance of her education through Bellevue University in Nebraska.

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.

“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.

Though she may be far away, Grady’s not the only one who will be tuning into the virtual commencement. Lillian Connor lives in Homer and is graduating with an Associate of Arts as well. She plans to continue her education with an Associate of Science degree and entering a physical therapy assistant program.

Reflecting on her time at Kachemak Bay Campus, Connor said she appreciated how accessible the staff and professors are.

“Everybody at Kachemak Bay Campus is so supportive and community oriented,” Connor said.

She also liked that the school understands working students. Connor fishes commercially in the summer and for six years she worked building seine nets. The school worked around her schedule and was very flexible, Connor said.

Connor said she thinks the college did the best it could to put together a program to honor graduates under the circumstances. Everyone at KBC has been communicative and good about keeping graduates in the loop about the changes, she said.

“We all really want to be here for each other,” she said.

Connor said she feels lucky to be included in the community this way, and to be seen and heard.

“As a student speaking out to other students, I would just say be persistent and tenacious about pursuing degrees or programs that you’re interested in getting into,” Connor said.

She said things may be tougher to navigate during this uncertain time, but that students shouldn’t give up if it’s what they have their heart set on. For those students, she wants them to do their best and to know that there are people out there willing to help.

Chloe Pleznac, a recent Homer High School graduate, is also graduating with her Associate of Arts this spring.

“I really mainly just wanted to get my general education stuff out of the way,” she said.

Pleznac said going to college wasn’t a solid plan of hers until late in high school, and she has a goal of getting through the experience as debt-free as possible. For those reasons, staying close to home for that initial general education was an attractive option.

Pleznac said she originally planned on moving on to an out-of-state university after graduating from KBC, but with the national and global situation being what it is, she will attend University of Alaska Southeast in the fall, where she will pursue two four-year degrees: a Bachelor of Liberal Arts in Alaska Native language and studies, and a Bachelor of Arts in English.

Getting to attend such a small college with such intimate, personalized learning has been a wonderful opportunity, Pleznac said.

“They care about the students so much, and they’re really quite talented professors,” she said.

Pleznac said she appreciated the quick access she had to school resources while at KBC — things like guidance counseling. When attending school out of state was still the plan, Pleznac said she had a hard time event getting through to people on the phone to get more information.

She’s enjoyed the relationships she built with both professors and college staff.

“What an awesome opportunity it is to have such a small, intimate and just profoundly intellectual school in such a tiny community,” Pleznac said. “… I’ve just been blown away.”

For more information about the virtual commencement ceremony, visit https://kpc.alaska.edu/commencement2020 or call 907-235-7743.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

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