Take risks. Say thank you. Smile. Be kind to yourself. Start something new.
That was among the advice given May 7 at the occasion of 2014 commencement exercises for 151 people receiving degrees or certificates from Kenai Peninsula College, Kachemak Bay Campus.
As is typical of a community college, graduates ranged from young people in their 20s just beginning adult life to seasoned citizens gaining new skills to start second careers. Some got certificates in welding or to be nursing aides. Some finished their general education diplomas. As a reminder that KBC also is part of the University of Alaska Anchorage and offers advanced degrees, one graduate, Lenore Swanson, formally received her master’s hood for her master of arts in teaching degree.
“Commencement means to all of you years of hard work and study,” said KBC director Carol Swartz in opening remarks. “You give us good reason to believe tomorrow will be better than today.”
Swartz led a team of distinguished guests, all dressed in traditional caps and gowns, including Kirk Wickersham, University of Alaska regent; Patrick Gamble, UA president; Elisha Baker, UAA provost; Gary Turner, KPC director; Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer; Jan Needham, Kachemak Bay Advisory Board member; and Shannyn Moore, keynote speaker.
In his remarks, Baker apologized for not having a prepared speech because he had been recently ill with pneumonia. Dare to risk, he said.
“You guys took a risk when you went back to school,” he said. “There’s nothing in life that doesn’t require a risk. Don’t be so comfortable in what you’re doing that you won’t think about trying something else.”
Baker had some more advice: do two things that don’t cost anything.
“It’s easy to say ‘thank you,’” he said. “The other thing is, ‘Put a smile on your face.’”
Swartz introduced Moore as a bit of a special keynote speaker, saying it wasn’t every day that the keynote address was done by someone who grew up in Homer. Moore graduated from Homer High School and is now a political columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and a radio commentator.
“It’s been quite a while since I wore a cap and gown in Homer, Alaska,” Moore said.
Moore mentioned a commencement address by writer George Saunders to the Syracuse University, N.Y., class of 2013. In that speech, Saunders spoke about one of his life regrets: not being kinder to a girl he knew 42 years ago when he was growing up. “Try to be kinder,” Saunders said.
There had been a girl named Patty that Moore said she had been mean to. She and Patty would ride to town for dance classes with Lorraine Haas. Patty always sang “You Are My Sunshine,” and once Moore pinched her.
“I was not kind to her,” Moore said.
Take Saunders’ advice further, Moore said.
“Be kinder. Be kind to yourself first,” she said. “It took me a lot longer to give myself a second chance. Be gentle to yourself. Be kinder to yourself.”
Some of the best advice for the evening came from one of KBC’s own, associate of arts graduate Karmen Classen, who gave the valedictory address. (For the full text of her speech, please see page 5.)
Classen said she remembered only one previous KBC commencement she had gone to when a friend graduated. She remembered English professor Beth Graber’s talk that night. Graber read from Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.” Graber said something that stayed with her, Classen said.
“Your life is like a lump of clay. There may come a day when it’s squished. The clay’s still there. You can shape it into something new,” she said.
After life seemed good, eventually it happened that Classen felt her life had been squished, that she “found myself sinking on what felt like my own personal Titanic,” she said.
But she went to college, went to KBC, and she found kindred souls, that she was not the only woman, the only mother going back to school and the only person finding her way back.
“Among our graduating class tonight we may have over 100 years of detour experience,” Classen said.
An older friend, Rachel Bilbo, also taught her something. Bilbo, then 76, had decided to learn the viola. Classen said she thought that if Bilbo could learn a new instrument in her 70s, at age 39 she could learn the cello. They now play together in a group.
“That’s what I love about the people I’ve met over the past few years,” Classen said. “All around me people are starting or finishing or in the middle of things.”
To her fellow graduates, Classen gave them one more assignment to work on — a lifelong assignment.
“Start something new when you’re 76,” she said. “Just plan on it. Make up your mind that you will, that you’ll start something new that will take you uphill.”
Classen closed her talk with an Alaska version of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.”
“And I know you won’t worry if things all go wrong / You’re an Alaskan and that means you’re strong,” she said. “Dr. Seuss got one thing just a little bit wrong / Those aren’t shoes on your feet / You’ve got XtraTufs on!”
Closing the ceremony, Turner encouraged the graduates to thank the people who had helped them be there tonight — family, friends and teachers.
“If you have a camera now, take a selfie and send it,” he said as a way to thank those who had helped. “You should take a look in your rear-view mirror and then charge ahead.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org