Remarks of Dr. Jill Biden at Navajo Technical College Commencement *AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY*
Crownpoint, New Mexico
May 17, 2013
Good morning, everyone!
Ya'aa'tey shi Din'e
It’s wonderful to be here in New Mexico to celebrate such an important day with all of you!
Thank you, Roselyn, for that very kind introduction. Dr. Guy, thank you for hosting me here today.
Last night, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet President Shelly and his wife, Martha, and see the students from Dine Bi Olta Elementary School and Miyamura High School perform the basket and ribbon dances. The dances were beautiful.
Thank you, President Shelly and Council Delegate Simpson for having me today.
All of you graduating today stand on the shoulders of those who came before you - your parents, your grandparents, and all of your ancestors. It is their vision, and their determination that created this community and built this college.
So as we celebrate your accomplishments here today, we also remember and acknowledge their sacrifices to make this all possible.
Navajo Technical College is a special place. For the second year in a row I know you were recognized by the Aspen Institute as being one of the top 120 community colleges in the United States – in part because of your graduation rate near 80 percent. That’s amazing!
I know you are also celebrating your first student to graduate with a Baccalaureate Degree this year – congratulations to Dody Begay– who is graduating with his degree in Information Technology!
Some of you know my story. I’ve been a teacher for more than 30 years, and I continue to teach full-time at a community college in Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C.
This time of year is always a little bittersweet for me. I’m happy to have finished up another semester and look forward to a little summer break. But I know I’ll be missing my students.
And those feelings – which I’m sure many of your teachers share – are only amplified for those who are graduating.
We are so proud of you. We hope we have given you every bit of advice to help you succeed. And we are excited to see what you’ll do next.
College is a place that changes lives, for the better. And tribal colleges are especially unique places … particularly for students who might otherwise not have the opportunity to attain a higher education.
Tribal colleges, like community colleges, meet students exactly where they are.
As a community college teacher, I see every day that my students have all made a choice to be there, to be better, to continue their education.
They have made a choice to be in the classroom, even though they might be working one or two other jobs, juggling child care, and raising families.
My students have made the choice because they believe in themselves.
And we believe in them, too. We stand behind them.
Today, I would like to share a few stories of your fellow graduates and how they embody three important lessons about community and as you move forward in your lives, about your sense of place in the world.
Every story I have heard about your fellow students comes back to this: your community is more than the people around you, it is who you are.
Many of you know Dwight Carlston. He’s about to graduate with his Associate of Applied Science degree in Environmental Science and Natural Resources.
Growing up, Dwight and his two younger brothers spent a lot of time with their grandparents while their single mom worked two jobs – one at a loan company and another as a bank teller.
There were lots of chores. No electricity. No running water.
Dwight says watching his mom, who didn’t graduate from high school, have to work so hard at all those jobs made him wonder what kind of life was really possible for himself.
One thing he does remember is his grandfather’s stubborn streak, especially when it came to education: his grandsons would go to school.
Dwight didn’t think he had the financial resources necessary to get his higher education.
But with the help of counselors, the cross country runner was able to get a scholarship to attend his first year at another school in Kansas.
But Dwight struggled and dropped out after a year. After working construction jobs, he knew he wanted to try again to complete his education.
For Dwight, Navajo Technical College’s proximity to home and affordability changed his entire learning experience.
Named last year’s Student of the Year, Dwight excelled in and out of the classroom, maintained a 3.8 GPA, served as Student Senate President and ran cross country. More recently, he was elected the Student Congress president of all 38 tribal colleges.
It’s clear his grandfather’s stubborn streak has been passed on. Now that there is a four-year Bachelor of Science degree available, Dwight plans to continue his education this fall.
I know we’ll hear more from Dwight in the future!
The second lesson is about service to your community.
Many of you come back to your community because you couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. And you come back to your community because you want to continue to serve - serve others as well as they have served you.
Jerrilene Kenneth started her higher education right after high school at a community college in Albuquerque.
Three years in, her father passed away, and in a short time, Jerrilene says she didn’t know what to do with her herself.
She did complete a culinary arts certificate, but eventually dropped out of school.
Jerrilene’s dad had been a mechanic. So Jerrilene, the youngest of 11, decided to enlist in the Army.
She went on to serve four years as a mechanic, including two deployments – first to Iraq and then to Afghanistan.
While deployed, Jerrilene says she learned just how much stress one person could survive. After losing her dad, Jerrilene found being away from her family – especially her mom – to be the hardest thing she had ever done.
When Jerrilene came home, she found her place: spending time with her many nieces and nephews, connecting with young people and her community.
She enrolled at Navajo Technical College and graduates today – the first in her family to do so – with an Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education.
Last month, Jerrilene received a gold medal in Early Childhood Education at the SkillsUSA state competition and she will go on to compete in the National Championships.
With her Associate Degree down, Jerrilene says she now hopes to continue on to get her bachelor’s degree to eventually become a teacher. A woman after my own heart!
From cook, to mechanic in Iraq and Afghanistan, to teacher, Jerrilene knows wherever she is in the world helping others learn will be part of her life.
And she also says there is nowhere she would rather be serving than right here, in her own community.
Jerrilene, thank you for your service to our country.
And I know there are two other veterans graduating today as well - Fitzgerald Nez and Eric Begody – could you please stand? Thank you for your service.
The last idea is pretty simple: here, within the Navajo Nation, you found an even deeper level of community at your school. Here at Navajo Technical College, you found the support that you needed to succeed.
Sherwin Becenti headed for college at the University of New Mexico right out of high school but dropped out after two years.
Sherwin stopped going to classes and pretty soon, felt like he was too far behind to catch up.
That was more than a decade ago.
He worked all kinds of jobs in the intervening time: a bread factory, construction, firefighting.
Then he met his wife, Michelle, who kept encouraging him to go back and finish his education. Michelle is a Navajo Technical College student, too.
Sherwin and Michelle want to provide a good example to their children, Mikaela and Kobe, to know there is a path to a brighter future.
Sherwin – this year’s Student of the Year – wants them to know about the things he never knew about – scholarships, internships, a path toward a better life.
Mikaela is already on her way. She recently completed a rigorous application process to be admitted into the Navajo Preparatory School, where she will start high school this fall.
And her parents couldn’t be more proud.
Sherwin, thank you for the wonderful example you are setting. And, he couldn’t have done it without you, Michelle. You believed in him!
I would like you all to think back on the lessons you have learned as part of the Navajo Technical College community.
You are people like Dwight, who become lifelong learners and will encourage others to do the same.
You are people like Jerrilene, who are going to become teachers. And, in a few years, she may teach the children of the people sitting next to you.
You are people like Sherwin, who are going to continue to show future generations that there is a bright path ahead.
You all care so deeply about this place that generations of your family have called home.
You all have a stake in each other’s future because you are now and always be part of this shared community.
So continue to reach out to one another, to encourage one another, to lift up each other.
I know that shortly you will hear a new poem from the first Navajo Poet Laureate, Professor Luci Tapahonso.
But I would like to close with the beautiful ending of another of her poems entitled “A Blessing,” which she wrote for another class of college graduates:
“May we fulfill the lives envisioned for us at our birth. May we realize that our actions affect all people and the earth. May we live in the way of beauty and help others in need. May we always remember that we were created as people who believe in one another.
We are grateful, Holy Ones, for the graduates, as they will strengthen our future. All is beautiful again.”
I hope you all take some time today to reflect on all that you have accomplished.
Take time to thank your professors, your fellow students, and most of all, your families for their support along the way.
And celebrate this important milestone with your loved ones.
On behalf of President Obama, the First Lady and the Vice President, my husband Joe – we are so proud of you, and we look forward to all that lies in front of you.