East High grads reflect on diversity

Seniors from most of Anchorage’s high schools are graduating this week and next. The district’s high schools rank among the most diverse in the nation. East high tops that list with more than 2000 kids from every corner of the world.

Inside the Sullivan arena, students lined up to receive their diplomas. Outside, a few tables were set up with a selection of classic graduation presents like flowers and teddy bears, but the leis are clearly the most popular.

East High graduates celebrate after flipping their tassels.
East High graduates celebrate after flipping their tassels.

Pepe Ahkui sat at a booth surrounded by candy strung together and leaves woven into necklaces. She said giving a graduate a lei is a way to show love and honor—it’s a way of life.

“And if we’re able to do that here – you know, cause there’s so much different nationalities, and with the mixture of people sharing their cultures, I think it’s a way of making the world a better place to live,” she said.

Graduate Nichole Child arrived at East from private school and said the transition opened her eyes. “I’ve learned to accept more cultures, actually. Like, I dunno, like my family background—I believed more what they said but as I met other kids and their cultures, it wasn’t bad.”

Valerie Thao said she took time during high school to learn about other cultures, and fellow students asked about her Hmong culture too. But she admited her circle of friends is probably less diverse.

“They’re Hmong. Mostly their Hmong, but I also have a couple of friends who are from other cultures, too.”

Friday Thor, who graduated from Bartlett two years ago, was with her friend who just graduated. They both agreed that in their experiences, diversity didn’t always equate to integration. Thor said people often hung out together because they connected through language.

“Us, we speak another language,” she said, referring to her native Nuer. “Like I’d be more comfortable going to my people, going up and hanging out with my people who speak my language rather than hanging out with people who speak English. I feel like African-Americans and Caucasian kids mix around because they don’t have that comfort group that they’re with.”

UAA sociology professor Chad Farrell, who ran the numbers for Anchorage, said diversity doesn’t necessarily lead to cross cultural friendships. He used Department of Education data to see how the city’s schools compared to others in the nation. Just like many Anchorage neighborhoods, they’re all significantly more diverse than average. But East, Bartlett, and West take the top spots.

“Another way to think about it is that your average Anchorage resident has more localized diversity surrounding him or her than your average American. That doesn’t necessarily mean that people are hanging out or striking up friendships with their neighbors who are from a different ethno-racial group but it certainly speaks to the exposure to localized diversity is higher here than you would see in other metropolitan areas.”

After the graduation ceremony wraps up, Presley Piliati emerged from the arena. His face peeked out from a mound of leis made from Cheetos, candy bars, and small pink flowers. He was surrounded by family and friends who shout to him as he tried to explain how the leis reflect his culture and his family’s love.

Piliati said at East, the students from different backgrounds do hang out with each other.

Presley Piliati poses with signs made by family and friends.
Presley Piliati poses with signs made by family and friends.

“I mean everyone sits together. It’s not just Polynesians on one side and Dominicans on one side. It’s mixed,” he said. “We just make friends with each other.”

And share their leis, which hang around hundreds of graduates’ necks.