Graduates celebrate achievements at UAF Bristol Bay's 33rd commencement

May 14, 2019

Thirty students were recognized at the UAF Bristol Bay Campus's 33rd commencement ceremony Saturday. Their stories reflect the possibilities of education in rural communities. 

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

Thirty students were recognized Saturday for completing programs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Bristol Bay Campus. Those ranged from occupational courses to Masters programs. Pastor Luisa Hanson of the Dillingham Trinity Lutheran Church gave the invocation. Dillingham’s Rex Spofford delivered the commencement address.

It was an uplifting ceremony for many, especially those who completed their degrees despite substantial challenges.

Chelsea Ayars is awarded Student of the Year.
Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

Chelsea Ayars is the nursing program’s Student of the Year. She graduated cum laude and was applauded by Denise Gilliland, who presented the award, for her tenacity and dedication.

“In fact, during her first semester in the nursing program, a very pregnant Chelsea, due at any time, completed her last mandatory nursing clinical on a Thursday, gave birth to her son on a Saturday, and came back on Monday to complete her finals,” Gilliland said.

The crowd broke into cheers. After the ceremony, Ayers said she has wanted to be a nurse since she was little. But not until a particularly harrowing experience did she take the leap to pursue her degree.

Marlena Bavilla sits with a young boy during the commencement ceremony.
Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

“My husband and I were actually going through the airport, and a gentleman dropped dead, basically, in front of us," she said. "And I was so compelled to help him, but I had no skill. I had no idea what to do. And it was a physical draw to go help. And I decided at that moment I was done messing around. I was going to go ahead and go get the training to follow the need.”

The nursing program is run through the University of Alaska Anchorage. Ayars said the hardest part of getting her degree was spending four months in Anchorage.

“Because just being away from my family for that long was so very challenging. But it’s such a great program to have out here. It’s so vital to our community. It’s incredible,” she said.

After completing the national nursing examination, Ayers hopes to work at Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham.

Another graduate, Marlena Bavilla, received her General Education Diploma. She said she decided to complete her GED when she realized that she wanted to be self-sufficient.

“I kind of dropped out right when I had my first son. And then realizing now that I’m a single mother, I went for my GED,” she explained.

Bavilla said that the testing was difficult, but she’s excited about what the degree will enable her to do – she hopes to start work as soon as possible.

“I’ve already filled out job applications. And then not too long after, maybe in a few years, try to go for college,” she said.

After the ceremony, Bristol Bay Campus Director Sarah Andrew said the students’ abilities to overcome obstacles surprises her every year.

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

“Regardless of what their goal is, whether it’s a GED diploma or a Masters-level degree, there’s always obstacles and twists and turns that come up," she said. "But all of them were able to surmount that. And as I looked out into the audience at each one of them, I could think of those specific examples of times when they had to decide if this was something they wanted to do. And every one of them made that decision. And I’m just so proud of them.”

Andrew said that while some students will be away, the campus isn’t taking a summer vacation; classes for the next semester start May 20.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.