On May 17, Dr. Jill Biden addressed the 176 graduating students and their families at Navajo Technical College’s spring commencement in Crownpoint, New Mexico. The Second Lady of the United States had never spent much time on the Navajo Nation and was able to see students from Diné Bi Olta Language Immersion Elementary School and Miyamura High School perform traditional basket and ribbon dances. She said the “dances were beautiful.
Biden also took part in a traditional blessing by Medicine Man Robert Johnson. Taking part in these community activities, she saw firsthand how the community affects the students.
“As a community college teacher, I love seeing what a tremendous difference a community like the one I saw at Navajo Tech can make in the lives of its students,” she said in a blog posted on WhiteHouse.gov titled “Building Opportunities in Indian Country: Congratulations to the Graduates of Navajo Technical College.”
“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,” she said during her commencement address. “So as we celebrate your accomplishments here today, we also remember and acknowledge their sacrifices to make this all possible.”
Biden, who has been an educator for more than 30 years, noted how NTC has been recognized by the Aspen Institute as being one of the top 120 community colleges in the country two years in a row, party because of it’s near 80 percent graduation rate.
Biden also commended certain students including Student of the Year Sherwin Becenti; Dody Begay, the first NTC student to graduate with a four-year degree; Jerrilene Kenneth, the first in her family to obtain a college degree; and Dwight Carlston, who didn’t think he had the financial resources to make it to college.
Becenti, 33, dropped out of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque during his first attempt at college in 1999. After working odd jobs for 10 years he enrolled in NTC’s environmental sciences and natural resources program in 2010.
“I’ve realized my time here at Navajo Technical College has changed me in immeasurable ways,” said Becenti, whose clans are Waters Edge and Water Flows Together. “It has been a journey that has prepared me for the opportunities that await me. But even more than that, it has taught me more about myself—about who I am and who I can be. Most of all it has taught me about redemption, about second chances.”
Becenti graduated with his associate of applied sciences degree and will continue to obtain his bachelor of science in the same field.
“As history has shown, we are a people who’ve persevered and survived many difficulties. I need to do something with my life and it was here at Navajo Technical College where I found my support system I lacked for my educational endeavors,” he said.
Carlston found the support he needed as well. He graduated with the same degree as Becenti and will also continue to get his bachelor’s. He grew up with no running water or electricity and didn’t think he’d have the financial resources to make it to college. He watched his single mother work two jobs to make ends meet. It was thanks to his grandfather’s stubbornness about higher education, counselors and a scholarship that he went to school in Kansas.
But being away from home was difficult for him and he dropped out within a year. He tried again at NTC after working construction jobs.
“For Dwight, Navajo Technical College’s proximity to home and affordability changed his entire learning experience,” Biden said during her address.
Carlston was last year’s Student of the Year, maintained a 3.8 GPA, ran cross country, served as Student Senate president and was elected Student Congress president of all 38 tribal colleges. (Related story: “Tribal College Student Appears on National Television Series”)
“It’s clear his grandfather’s stubborn streak has been passed on,” Biden commented.
It wasn’t stubbornness that brought Kenneth to NTC, but tragedy. She lost her father while attending a community college in Albuquerque. She did complete a culinary arts certificate, but ended up dropping out of school. Her father had been a mechanic, so she decided to enlist in the Army. She served 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,” Biden said during her address. “After losing her dad, Jerrilene found being away from her family—especially her mom—to be the hardest thing she had ever done.
Kenneth found her place at NTC, close to home. She graduated May 17—the first in her family to do so, and she’s the youngest of 11—with an associate’s degree in early childhood education. She plans on getting her bachelor’s and becoming a teacher so she can work in her own community.
Also in this year’s graduating class is Begay, the first student to complete a four-year degree at NTC. He earned his Bachelor of Applied Science degree in information technology-computer science.
“I’ve watched history being made here at Navajo Technical College, and I couldn’t be more proud to be part of this graduating class,” Becenti said.
All of these students needed a supportive place that was close to home and NTC provided that for them.
“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,” said Dr. Biden.