Please note: Alex Jorgensen and Clare Baldwin are sheltering in place together and recorded their speech side-by-side so it could be made available as part of an online celebration for UAA graduates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Student Commencement Speaker
It was about 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday in late March and Alex Jorgensen, UAA political science senior, legislative intern and one of spring’s commencement speakers, was perched on the edge of his couch watching the final budget votes tallied in for the legislative session. It was a cliffhanger whether or not the Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR) vote would pass — a bill that renewed important legislation, specifically the Alaska Performance Scholarship. Despite being exhausted after a three-week-long sprint to close the 67-day in-person legislative session, Jorgensen was happy he’d made the effort to stay awake to see the session through.
“That [bill] passed by one vote,” said Jorgensen. “Everyone had voted except for one person who was in the house minority and the speaker of the house said to her, ‘You need to vote.’ She decided to break from her party and vote yes. So because of that, people will get the scholarships they rightfully earned and important government services. their scholarships and a whole host of other things. It was incredible to witness that moment in history.”
The vote is indicative of Jorgensen’s five-year collegiate career at UAA — being involved and seeing things through — even when it gets dicey. But Jorgensen is resilient and is not afraid to roll his sleeves up and get to work when things get tough. He believes in education and UAA, and if you were to take a look at Jorgensen’s highlight reel of his five-year collegiate career, you would see that he has been a huge advocate of the university and its students. From serving as a resident assistant for three years; providing sex education to his classmates as a peer health educator; working as a Community Engaged Student Assistant — better known as a CESA — in the Center for Community Engagement and Learning; and topping off, serving nearly three years as a senator and speaker of the assembly for the Union of Students at the University of Alaska Anchorage (USUAA), Jorgensen has been on the front lines of advocating for his peers and fighting for their “right to an education.”
Last summer when the governor proposed an unprecedented $136 million cut to the University of Alaska (UA) budget, Jorgensen sprang into action mobilizing more than 3,000 students, faculty, staff and the community to protest the cuts at the Override the Vetoes rally at the Alaska Airlines Center. Jorgensen’s efforts resulted in 2,500 people at the rally taking action in sending text messages, emails and phone calls to their elected officials governor’s office voicing their concern and support for the university.
Jorgensen says he feels if there’s any word that best describes his graduating class or one that defines his university experience — it’s perseverance.
“When I wrote my original speech it was about one thing, the uniqueness of the current graduating class,” he said. “We’ve experienced, in what I think, to be a lot of hardship as a collective unit of people.”
During his tenure over the past five years, Jorgensen said he’s watched what he feels like has been an attack on Alaska’s education system and the university struggling year-after-year with budget cuts. He said he’s frustrated because he feels like it sends the wrong message to youth in the state, “that they are not valuable or important to the future of Alaska,” but is hopeful that at some point the tide will turn and that even though he’s graduating and about to move on in his life soon, he will continue to advocate for the university.
“We’ve had all these messages and things that have worked against us, but yet, we worked through that and we overcame what I think to be pretty significant barriers,” Jorgensen said. He’s proud of the graduating class of 2020, despite the odds stacked against them and that they've persevered through continued budget issues and now a global pandemic. He admits it’s a bizarre time to be graduating from college, a phase in life where most 20-somethings are trying to get their foot in the door professionally and establish themselves as adults, but he’s confident he and his classmates will continue to be resilient. “I think that’s an incredible accomplishment, that we’ve overcome this systemic pressure against us in our journey to graduate. I think that’s only been made more important, now that we’re graduating during a pandemic.”
It’s been a bumpy ride for the graduating class of 2020, but for UAA commencement speaker Alex Jorgensen, perseverance is what has inspired him to advocate for his peers during his collegiate career and why he will continue to do so long after he graduates.
Student Commencement Speaker
It can be easy to overlook the impact individual components can have on complex systems. Clare Baldwin, one of UAA’s two student commencement speakers for spring 2020, not only understands that dynamic but is fascinated by it.
Born in Oklahoma City but an Alaskan since she was two years old, Baldwin took a student job in the dean’s office at UAA’s College of Business and Public Policy her freshman year, which inspired her to change her major from psychology to business management.
The new curriculum included a macroeconomics course which implemented the use of Kiviq, an app that turned the classroom into a simulated miniature economy. Through Kiviq, Baldwin and her classmates became buyers and sellers for virtual companies. Part of the experience — and the most compelling for Baldwin — included seeing everyone’s activities play out in real time.
“Up on the screen they showed a timeline of the game and it created this chart,” said Baldwin. “It was in that moment that I was like, ‘This is so cool. I love econ. This is going to be my major.’
Outside of class, Baldwin takes an active role in impacting communities and organizations. While it took some time for her to discover economics, Baldwin immediately knew she wanted to not only be part of a sorority but become president of one. Baldwin joined Alpha Sigma Alpha early in her freshman year and became president by her senior year.
As further evidence of the importance of interconnectedness, Baldwin was introduced to the Union of Students at the University of Alaska Anchorage (USUAA) through her sorority sisters. She joined USUAA as a senator and became vice president and then president her senior year.
Baldwin’s tenure in USUAA’s highest positions coincided with a precarious time at UAA, which involved expedited program reviews resulting from drastic state-funded budget reductions. According to Baldwin, that adversity is also the source of her greatest learning experience.
Those experiences have also prepared Baldwin to be student commencement speaker during the COVID-19 outbreak. She notes it’s times like these that demonstrate UAA’s connectedness best, pointing to the quick efforts by students and faculty to mobilize to alternate course delivery.
According to Baldwin, that connectedness will continue to be crucial. Much like how Kiviq displayed the immediate impact each of her classmates had on their simulated economy, the actions of each member of UAA can have an immediate and lasting impact on Alaska.
“Where you go to college defines you,” said Baldwin. “Being a UAA graduate and representing UAA really well, sharing our stories and telling people about how great our professors are and how great the research is here, that’s how we’re going to make our university even more integrated into our community.”
Coached by Michelle Scaman, term instructor, Department of Communication
Graduate Degree Hooding Ceremony Student Speaker
The first time civil engineering alumna Virginia Groeschel was honored at a UAA ceremony was when she was named 2014 Alumni Emerging Leader, one of three Alumni of Distinction awards given at the annual Green and Gold Gala. This year, Groeschel is the graduate degree hooding ceremony student speaker after adding a master’s degree in project management to her repertoire. Unlike the gala or previous hooding ceremonies, her speech this year will be given via pre-recorded video due to COVID-19’s impact on public gatherings.
Although she describes being selected as a student speaker and then hearing that all public graduation events were canceled across the state as a “real high-low,” Groeschel is confident that her message is as relevant as ever.>
“There are moments in life when you feel you can’t do something, but you get support from somewhere or someone and you keep going,” she said. “We’ve all experienced that and sometimes we forget when we receive that encouragement, but we never forget how it made us feel — motivated and reassured. So anytime I can, I share the message that if somebody gave that gift to you, then you can rewrap it and gift it to somebody else.”
In the years since her last check-in, Groeschel’s resume has become only more impressive. Then an aviation design engineer for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, Central Region (DOT&PF-CR) Aviation Design Section, she is now a consultant coordinator, directly assisting the project manager on consultant-designed airport and some highway projects, which gives her more experience in engineering project management. Additionally, Groeschel serves as DOT&PF-CR’s Design and Engineering Services (D&ES) internship program manager and aviation specifications engineer.
As if holding three positions while working toward a graduate degree didn’t keep her busy enough, Groeschel is an active volunteer, currently serving as president of the UAA College of Engineering (CoEng) Alumni Chapter and as a member of the CoEng Advisory Board, as well as a supportive PTA mom at her son Stefan’s school.
Having always been focused on giving back to her community, Groeschel credits her son for inspiring her to focus her efforts on communicating the benefits of education and a career in engineering directly to kids, particularly those in elementary and middle school. Groeschel believes in being a positive role model for kids at those ages to support them through a key developmental period when they begin to get a sense of what they like to do and what they may want to explore in the future, while helping guide them to continue their education to college.
“That’s one of the things my parents instilled in us as kids, that education will offer opportunities. The more education, the more opportunities. With an engineering degree, I’ve learned the truth of that firsthand, so thank you, mom and dad,” said Groeschel. “And through the alumni chapter and the advisory board, I consider myself fortunate to have the opportunity to share my experience of what a college education at UAA can offer.”
Coached by Michelle Scaman, term instructor, Department of Communication