Two Kodiak High School graduates with Filipino heritage notched additional educational milestones this spring — completing their respective graduate degrees from well-respected universities, and doing so without any student loan debt.

Deborah Palileo Bitanga, a KHS graduate with the class of 2015, moved to New York City and got her Master’s of Arts in Sociology and Education from Teachers College at Columbia University.

“I have had the immense privilege of being a fully funded Bill & Melinda Gates Millennium Scholar,” Bitanga said in an email. She also applied for other scholarships and fellowships while at Teachers College, which allowed her graduate with no school debt.

Meanwhile, Al Asuncion, member of the KHS class of 2017, was following a similar path in his chosen field on the West Coast. He earned his Master’s in Business Taxation with Data Analytics from the University of Southern California. 

“I accomplished these goals with the help of my scholarship donors and sponsors,” Asuncion said in an email. “If it weren’t for them, I would not have the means to finance my undergraduate and graduate studies.”

Even with financial assistance, grad school came with its fair share of stressors for Bitanga and Asuncion.

“An archipelago of individuals supported me in my journey at TC,” Bitanga said. “Columbia counselors, time management and PTSD support groups, my therapist, Kodiak and NYC mentors, friends and family all contributed to helping me manage my energy, time, motivation and practice deep self-compassion.”

Asuncion shared a similar experience.

“Without a doubt, my friends and family (especially my mom) continue to be the foundation of my support system,” Asuncion said. “I think college students would agree that college takes a great toll on your mental health.

“This was heightened during the pandemic. As a result, many students suffered great anxiety and depression. My support system assures me [that with] my abilities and confidence that I will succeed with my goals.”

In addition to the pandemic and regular college stressors, Asuncion and Bitanga faced the challenges of their minority status, something that Bitanga said she also witnessed in the halls of KHS.

“I witnessed a lot of successes of fellow immigrant students, but also experienced a lot of pain,” Bitanga said. “Compounded systemic inequalities, racism, internalized oppression, and the lack of culturally sustaining and responsive education for immigrant students were the impetus for my decision to pursue graduate school in education at Columbia.”

As Asuncion reflected on his graduate school experience, he said it was the best of times, and the worst of times.

“Graduate school is challenging but a memorable experience,” he said. “You will meet some of the best people in your chosen career field. However, be prepared to experience academic burnout and imposter syndrome. As always, seek help when needed. Mental health should be your priority in graduate school.”

Having already received his CPA license, Asuncion said he hopes to be able to teach people how to do their taxes and give them the resources to make smart financial decisions.

Bitanga said she’s been volunteering as a member of the Kodiak Island Borough School District’s Health Curriculum Review committee, with a focus on violence prevention.

“I’m relentlessly advocating to center the voices of students and families, particularly immigrants,” she said.

Know other interesting stories from recent KHS graduates? Send a short description of what makes the person so interesting, along with his or her contact information, to KDM Publisher Kevin Bumgarner at




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