Sending UAA spirit to Moldova

by Joey Besl  |   

Mariana Morari, M.P.A. '14, is collecting graduation gowns so students in her hometown of Moldova can have the same graduation experience she enjoyed at UAA (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage).

Mariana Morari, M.P.A. '14, is collecting graduation gowns so students in Moldova can have the same graduation experience she enjoyed at UAA. (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

For centuries, the mortarboard and graduation gown have served as vivid symbols of graduation. You don't need to research the medieval history of that flat hat and shapeless smock to know it signifies years of academic effort. All those long nights studying and stressful mornings cramming, all those flash cards and textbooks and lab coats and PowerPoint presentations, are wrapped up in that graduation gown-a symbol of accomplishment, finality and new opportunities.

The graduation ceremony is an American staple, but it's not as universal as you might think. Recent UAA graduate Mariana Morari, M.P.A. '14, is looking to change that. With the support of this year's graduates, she hopes to collect graduation gowns after Commencement and provide the same experience for high school students in her small hometown of Hirtopul-Mare in the Republic of Moldova.

If geography isn't your strong suit, then let's review. Moldova is not a remote Alaska harbor town (you're thinking of Cordova). It's an Eastern European country of about 3 million people, sandwiched between larger neighbor nations, Romania and Ukraine.

A view of Hirtopul-Mare, Mariana's hometown in Moldova (Photo by Mihai Gerlach).

A view of Hirtopul-Mare, Mariana's hometown in Moldova. (Photo by Mihai Gerlach)

Hirtopul-Mare is home to about 7,000 people, split between two villages. The community lies in an agricultural region about an hour's drive from the capital city. The majority of residents are self-employed farmers-hard-working and low-earning. Unemployment is high and, thanks to an economic downturn, "fewer and fewer parents are sending their children to universities," Mariana said. "Parents, especially those economically disadvantaged, have this thought: Why should I send my child to university when he or she is not going to have a job after they graduate?"

Mariana is here to change their minds. She now works for Salvation Army in Anchorage and sends academic inspiration home-her UAA diploma, for example, is on the wall at her old high school so all the students at Liceul Teoretic Hirtopul Mic can see it.

Her next big dream-stage the first graduation ceremony in town.

Reliving the dream

In Moldova, graduation means a simple recognition and not a glowing celebration. Students may receive a diploma from a school director, someone else may be in the room to applaud politely, then everyone moves on with their lives. There's no ceremony, there are certainly no family members in attendance.

When Mariana earned her M.P.A. last spring, it was the first time she'd participated in a traditional graduation. And it stuck with her.

"I don't even know how to describe it because it was so special," she said of Commencement. "I was so inspired by the graduation ceremony. It was something that I wanted to live it, and live it again. It was just one of those uplifting moments."

Now, she's hoping to share that energy and inspire students back in her hometown.

How to earn a master's degree in a foreign language

"When I came to Anchorage, I knew that I wanted to go to school and continue my studies," Mariana said. After earning a bachelor's in social work from a university in Chișinău, Moldova's capital city, Mariana decided to travel. She landed in Anchorage to visit friends and, like so many other transplants to this international city, she was hooked and decided to stay.

Even though English was her second language, Mariana earned her M.P.A. in 2014 with all A's and only one B on her transcript (Photo courtesy of Mariana Morari).

Even though English was her second language, Mariana earned her M.P.A. in 2014 with all A's and only one B on her transcript. (Photo courtesy of Mariana Morari)

After a year and half in Alaska, she stopped by the UAA registrar's office. "From the minute I walked in everyone just treated me with so much respect," she recalled. "They welcomed me like a family member and I remember that I felt so comfortable and so confident."

She shelved her hesitations and enrolled in the M.P.A. program-a serious undertaking for someone who had just grown confident with conversational English.

"Studying in a second language is not easy," laughed Mariana, who grew up speaking Romanian. "It was hard work for me, day and night, translating every single word."

The first day of class was a bit of an eye-opener. "My first class was 601. I could see my muscles tightening up," she recalled. "I was like, 'What is the professor talking about?" Mariana would scribble down her best guesses at big conceptual words and hope to find a definition later. She wrote all over her textbooks, adding extra lines with Romanian translations.

It wasn't easy, but she survived her first semester, earning two A's and the only B of her time at UAA.

Sending UAA spirit around the world

In Mariana's eyes, graduation isn't just a nice gesture-it's an inspirational moment and an aspirational milestone. Nearly a year later, she still gets emotional when she thinks about her own UAA graduation.

As a master's student, she attended the hooding ceremony the day before graduation. The hood is an extra layer of regalia for master's students but, like the rest of the graduation garb, it's not something you casually wear around on weekends.

Rather than tuck it away in a box somewhere, Mariana embroidered the names of her early teachers on her hood and sent it back home along with her diploma and a graduation photo. She even arranged a ceremony-all the way from Anchorage-where each of her teachers received a flower while "Pomp and Circumstance" played. Mariana's hood and diploma now reside on the honorary wall (the equivalent of an American trophy case) at the school.

"Right after I sent this hood home, I received an email from a graduating student," Mariana said. "I inspired him so much that he will continue his studies no matter what the circumstances may be, because he hopes one day to have a picture exactly like mine ... It was so powerful," Mariana said, smiling. "Like I can make a difference."

That student's email spurred her to keep the momentum going. She contacted the Commencement planning committee with a big idea-collect donated gowns so students in her hometown could enjoy a similar ceremony. The Commencement committee was immediately on board.

Mariana dedicated her graduation hood to her teachers at Liceul Teoretic Hirtopul Mic. Her hood and diploma now hang on the wall of her high school in Moldova (Photo courtesy of Mariana Morari).

Mariana dedicated her graduation hood to her teachers at Liceul Teoretic Hirtopul Mic. Her hood and diploma now hang on the wall of her high school in Moldova. (Photo courtesy of Mariana Morari)

How to get involved

She's motivated. She's enthusiastic. She's passionate about education. The only thing Mariana is missing is the gowns.

This year's UAA graduates will have the opportunity to donate their gowns after the ceremony and share their experience with students in Moldova. "My goal is to put [a collection box] at the exit and, once students come out of the ceremony-and if they feel comfortable-they can donate their gowns," Mariana explained.

She hopes by next year she can bring her village's two schools together for the first of many graduation ceremonies. The logistics are still a little iffy-shipping companies quoted her $1,800 to get the gowns home-but she has a year to figure out the transportation. Her mom will take the first set of gowns over when she flies home to Moldova in September. If you know anyone heading to Chișinău this year, let her know.

"With your support, I want it to be big. I want it to be a model and an example," she said. If the community in Anchorage is able to help, Mariana hopes to spread the graduation ceremonies to neighboring towns in Moldova. "Hopefully in 10 years I can change things," she added.

"It could turn out to be a huge project," she noted. "You never know, so I'm very excited."

The Alumni Center at UAA will be collecting donated gowns through the end of May for students in Hirtopul-Mare. You can drop off donations from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Creative Commons License "Sending UAA spirit to Moldova" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.