They wore aluminum foil turrets fashioned over their mortarboards. They had red ribbons woven festively in their hair or strands bleached blond. Many were young but some …
They wore aluminum foil turrets fashioned over their mortarboards. They had red ribbons woven festively in their hair or strands bleached blond. Many were young but some were not so young, weathered by years' experience. They were all, however, smiling, confident, determined. They were beaming.
This was their day. Graduation from University of New Mexico-Taos--137 of them with associate's degrees and five with bachelor's. The Sagebrush Inn and Suites Conference Center on a drizzly Friday evening (May 10) was jam-packed with families clutching cameras and bouquets of flowers, straining for a glimpse of their graduates in red (associate's in liberal arts, business and professional skills), white (health sciences) or black (bachelor's) gowns as they streamed through the side doors in the opening procession. It was standing room only. UNM-Taos Chief Executive Officer Patrick Valdez encouraged the audience to cheer and shout and make joyful noise--"respectfully," he added, with a wink--and the audience whooped cheerfully in response.
The hourlong ceremony moved from deacon Larry Torres' invocation of Saint Paul ("I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race") to the standing-ovation recognition of three retiring teachers, to the keynote address by Luis Maldonado (chief advocacy officer of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities) laying out his four points of success in life--opportunity, gratitude, community and passion for one's life pursuit. Taos Pueblo Warchief Bernard Lujan offered a soft-spoken closing prayer in Tiwa.
At one point an extraordinary young computer science scholar was introduced--Jennifer Longo--who returned to school after setbacks and won back-to-back scholarships and awards from Phi Beta Kappa, the New Century School and All-USA Academic Team, as well as a full-time job at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Longo spoke rousingly to the graduates: "You made this choice. Now you can take on the world."
As the names of each graduate was read and they bounded across the stage to receive their diploma, the families were moved alternately to wave their arms in the air or brush tears from their cheeks. Graduation was especially poignant for the family of Najwa Bilal, a dual high-school-college student in pre-science aiming for pre-med who was to graduate from Taos Academy the following day. "She was driven!" her mother, Dionne, explained of her daughter's precocity, and that "she liked college better." The family was living in Louisiana until Hurricane Katrina in 2004 forced them to move to her husband Bin's hometown of Taos, where the community helped them get settled with everything they needed. Grandma Amina, a teacher at Enos Elementary, was present as were Najwa's two sisters--one, Autumn, graduates from UNM next year.
Many families had several generations present--cousins Miquela Vigil-Avalos and Florence Vigil, both receiving associate's degrees, were represented by several great-aunties and even a great-grandma and great-grandpa. Grandma Regina, a determined educator herself for 40 years, at UNM and elsewhere, shared a Snapchat Miquela had written as a tribute to her grandma: "I would never be where I am today! If it weren't for my grandma kicking me, pushing me, bugging me, but most of all encouraging me."
Nikesha Breeze, brandishing her associate's diploma in fine arts with a bright smile, explained that at age 40 she went back to school because she was hungry to advance her career--"to work in the world of the arts and network." And Allen Martinez, who reenrolled last year after a long hiatus as a single dad caring for his children, graduated with special recognition in two majors, construction technology and general studies. When asked why he returned to school, he cited his sons' asking him: "Well, Dad, where is your degree?"
In several families, graduates of different generations were gaining their degrees at the same time--Juhcina Khweis, the sister-in-law to younger graduate Amani Khweis (receiving today an associate in fine arts), revealed she would be graduating herself at UNM-Albuquerque the following day. Feloniz Martinez, a liberal arts associate feeling exuberant among her family of supporters, introduced her mother, Irene Branchal, now a student in general studies. What were the keys to Martinez's success at UNM? "The teachers were very helpful," the graduate enthused, "very one-on-one."
Indeed, it took a village to nurture these graduate--or, as CEO Valdez acknowledged, "maybe a rancho."
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