A graduate's guide to commencement

by J. Besl  |   

This Sunday marks commencement for the class of 2014, and alumni volunteers will play a significant role in the weekend's events. Each year, alumni are honored as gonfalon bearers and hooding 'angels,' but they're also available as fonts of advice for new graduates. But before hearing their words of wisdom, it's time for one last learning opportunity.

Vice Provost Herb Schroeder and honorary degree recipient Rosita Worl, both sporting traditional garb rooted in the Middle Ages, march into UAA's commencement ceremony in 2012.

Welcome to history class

Professors in academic robes stride past the CTC's gonfalon at the 2013 commencement.

Professors in academic robes stride past the CTC's gonfalon at the 2013 commencement.

Commencement is an atmosphere unlike any other. The energy of thousands of graduates fills the room while costumed professors, looking fresh from a time machine, parade down the center aisle. UAA, like most universities, applies a few academic traditions that have been in place since the Middle Ages. But what circumstances led to today's pomp and circumstance? Even though the school year may be ending, there's certainly still time to learn a few more pieces of information. So let's talk about gonfalons.

Yes, gonfalons. It's more than an excellent word to remember for future Boggle games and crossword puzzles-it's a ceremonial flag with roots stretching back to the Italian renaissance (fun fact: gonfalone is an Italian word for 'banner'). The word 'gonfalon' specifically refers to flags suspended vertically from a crossbar, and the banners are still used in numerous Italian towns. It was a prestigious honor to be a gonfalon bearer in renaissance Italy, and it continues to be a prestigious honor today-each college at UAA handpicks alumni to represent the program as a gonfalon bearer at commencement.

Former Alaska governor Tony Knowles receives an academic hood with his honorary degree at the 2012 commencement.

Former Alaska governor Tony Knowles receives an academic hood with his honorary degree at the 2012 commencement.

In addition to selecting gonfalon bearers, each college also appoints alumni to lead graduates into the hooding ceremony, which precedes commencement. At the ceremony-exclusive to the university's advanced degree programs-graduate students receive a hood in a tradition stemming from the earliest universities of the 12th and 13th centuries. Back in the medieval days, scholars typically wore long gowns and hoods (their heads were often shaved on top, leaving a fashionable ring of hair, but thankfully this tradition has fallen by the historical wayside). Hoods evolved over the centuries to their current form-a long scarf draped over the shoulders with colors indicative of the degree. All UAA hoods sport the green and gold, with velvet trim specific to the graduate's program (master of education students earn light blue, master of science graduates get golden yellow, etc.).

Advice from alumni

Each college selects two alumni to participate in commencement weekend-one to lead graduates into the hooding ceremony, and one to carry the gonfalon at commencement. These alumni have been in the graduate's shoes before, and they're perfectly poised to offer advice for the new batch of 2,400 UAA graduates.

Chris Gunderson B.A. English '02; M.A. English '07; M.Ed. Counselor Education '12

Chris Gunderson, Gonfalon bearer at 2014 commencement. Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Chris Gunderson. Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Chris will carry the gonfalon for the College of Education at this year's commencement. A triple alumnus of UAA-having also obtained a B.A. and an M.A. in English from the university-Chris is now the Interim CEO of Denali Family Services, a community mental health provider serving Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley. Chris admits to being unsure of his path after graduation-"How I came to be in this position is an interesting and complex story.  But suffice it to say, I've put my education from UAA to good use," he said.

He has varied advice for this year's graduates, including write well, read everything and balance versatility with specialization. Additionally, Chris says to continually prepare: "Be prepared for the next opportunity, even if you don't know what it may be," he said. "That means continually learning, continually building relationships, continually seeking new challenges, continually exploring new ideas and continually challenging yourself to improve.

"Sound exhausting? It is. But you'll be amazed by the results."

Katharine Brandenburg A.A.S. General Program '94; B.B.A. Management '05; M.B.A. General Management '13

Katharine is also a triple alumna of UAA, but recognizing her potential has been a gradual process. When she first decided to pursue an associate degree, she faced a lot of financial and personal obstacles. "I had to pay for every class. I had some people in my life that discouraged me from getting my degree," she said. "I had a boss that would change my schedule mid-semester knowing it would keep me from attending classes. I had a boyfriend who told me an associate degree was just a waste of time and money. I don't have those people in my life anymore, but I still have that associate degree."

Katharine went on to obtain a bachelor's and a master's degree from UAA, and cites former hooding ceremonies as an inspiration for pursuing her own graduate degree. She is now the assistant to the associate dean of the UAA College of Arts and Sciences' Social Sciences Division and will serve as the hooding 'angel' for the college at this year's commencement. Many of the students she interacted with over the years came to her own hooding last year. "It meant the world to me for them to cheer me on, and I will continue to give that back for as long as I can."

"So my advice to the class of 2014 is to thank the people that encouraged them," she said. "Thank the people that came to the hooding ceremony, and always encourage the people around [you] to pursue their own education."

Tammy Zulz M.P.H. Public Health Practice '07

Tammy, a public health analyst for the CDC's Arctic Investigations Program, will usher in the College of Health graduates at this year's hooding ceremony. She admits her UAA experience is fairly unique-she kept the same full-time job before, during and after her graduate work at UAA-but the degree enhanced her skills and provided credentials in her field. "I use the education I received in my job every day and it has provided me with opportunities I never anticipated," she said, citing leadership positions in both statewide and international public health. "I was honored to be asked to be an 'angel' at this year's hooding ceremony," she said. "My ceremony was one of the highlights of my education and I appreciate the opportunity to give back to the program that has given me so much."

Tammy Zulz

Tammy Zulz. Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Her advice for the class of 2014: "Be open to possibilities and opportunities that come your way that may not exactly fit into your life plan. It's easy to have tunnel vision about a specific goal or path you want to take and end up missing out on an exciting adventure or career prospect. This applies not only to those graduating who are in their 20's, but also to those of us who have more life experience under our belts.

"Your education does not have to end here; keep learning, exploring and experiencing!"

So there you have it-a final bit of historical knowledge on academic ceremonies and some lasting advice for our outgoing seniors.

Congratulations to the Class of 2014.

Erin Johnson (B.A. '05, MS '10 Psychology) leads the Honors College graduates into the

Gonfalon bearer Erin Johnson (B.A. '05, MS '10 Psychology) leads the Honors College into commencement May 4, 2014. Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

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