Long-time advisor bids farewell to students

Heather Bryant & Logan Rahlfs / Sun Star Reporters
Feb. 7, 2012

Vice Chancellor for Rural, Community and Native Education Bernice Joseph, 47, and UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers (R) present Kay Thomas (L), 55, with awards for her hard work at her farewell reunion on Jan. 31, 2012. Fernanda Chamorro/Sun Star

After guiding more than 2,000 students through the maze of college life, Kay Thomas was celebrated by friends and colleagues as she retired from more than 20 years of advising and mentorship.

It didn’t feel like a farewell party. It was more like a family reunion, with those from the young to the old filling the Gathering Room in the Brooks building. Children played as the adults celebrated Thomas, 55, their friend and colleague.

On Jan. 31 more than 50 people gathered to honor Thomas. Thomas was retiring from more than 20 years of service at the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development (DANSRD), where she advised and assisted more than 2,000 students.

The room was decorated with Alaska Native art, and posters about upcoming events. A handcrafted kayak hung from the ceiling.

Attendees enjoyed a potluck meal, while faculty members wearing black armbands in “honor of Kay and [their] sadness,” at her departure gathered at the podium.

“There are times when words are inadequate to describe a person blessed with the gifts of humility grace and compassion. A person who does not seek praise or accolades… It is with tremendous honor that we say thank you to Kay,” director Miranda Wright said.

DANSRD is a program designed to create leaders for rural communities in Alaska. Students in the program study leadership, community planning and Alaska’s role in the world. Graduates of the program typically work for tribal and municipal governments, fisheries, tourism and other private businesses, Native corporations, regional health corporations or non-profits, and state/federal agencies, according to the program’s website.

In honor of Thomas’s contributions to the program DANSRD established the Kay L. Thomas Pathfinder award. The department will give the award annually to exemplary staff or faculty who embody the “compassion and dedication to student success demonstrated by Kay.”

Chancellor Brian Rogers presented Thomas with the first award.

“Coming in as chancellor, you hear from people about their experiences, how Kay made a difference to them,” Rogers said. “It’s a big deal and I think everyone of us has the opportunity to touch lives of students and seeing someone who as done it for over 20 years and made that kind of impact really is an inspiration to all of us.”

Friends and colleagues took turns presenting Thomas with gifts and thanks.

Gordon Pullar, an associate professor with DANSRD and the College of Rural and Community Development (CRCD), presented Thomas with one of his handmade traditional Native mask carved from wood and haloed by black and blue feather.

After each gift, Thomas spoke about how that person had been a part of her life and thanked each person for contributing to the Native Studies and Rural Development programs.

“I have a lot to be thankful for and it certainly goes beyond this room. You know I really feel like I can’t just take all this credit,” Thomas said. “I’ve just been very fortunate to work in an environment where people really care and put everything out there.”

Among the parting gifts were a number of scrapbooks filled with student photos and notes to Thomas.

“They talk about your walk is bigger than your talk and Kay’s got some incredible footsteps to follow,” Cathy Brooks said as she helped present one of the books. Brooks, a UAF instructor, is the program manager for the Festival of Native Arts. “We do love you and appreciate you,” Brooks said.

Thomas, both emotional and nostalgic about her time with DANSRD, thanked the crowd.

“Life is like the four seasons and there is a season for everything and I’ve certainly had a great summer and early fall and I’m looking forward to a quieter, moving into winter.”

“Not this cold,” she said, prompting laughter. “But winter nonetheless.”

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