Biden touts virtues of community colleges at NTC

By Sunnie Clahchischiligi
Special to the Times

CROWNPOINT, N.M., May 23, 2013

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(Times photo – Donovan Quintero)

Second lady of the United States, Jill Biden speaks at the Navajo Technical College graduation ceremony on Friday in Crownpoint.

It is because of graduates like Shirlene Largo and Sherwin Becenti that Navajo Technical College had the honor of hosting Jill Biden, the second lady of the United States, as its commencement speaker at their graduation ceremony on May 17.

NTC was named one of the top 120 community colleges in the nation by the Aspen Institute, due to its nearly 80 percent graduation rate. It is the second year in a row that the college was recognized as one of the top colleges and because of that Biden encouraged the graduates and congratulated them on their hard work.

"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," Biden said in her speech.

Biden, who has been a teacher for more than 30 years, continues to teach English full-time at a community college in northern Virginia.

Biden arrived in Gallup, N.M. by plane on May 16, the day before the commencement. Surrounded by Secret Service agents, she commuted to Window Rock, where she visited the Navajo Nation Museum and met with Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and his wife Martha Shelly.

Biden said watched students from Dine Bi' Olta Immersion School and Miyamura High School perform the Navajo basket and ribbon dances.

Biden made her way into the graduation ceremony, which was held under a large white tent on NTC's main campus in Crownpoint, just behind a Navajo medicine man along with Shelly.

Biden began her speech by first thanking Shelly, Council delegate Danny Simpson (Becenti/Crownpoint/Nahodishgish/Huerfano/Lake Valley/Nageezi/Tsé Ii'Ahi/Whiterock), NTC President Elmer J. Guy and NTC board member Delores Greyeyes for her introduction in Navajo and then said, "Ya'ah'teeh Shi Dine'é."

In her speech she told the students she understood the backgrounds that many community college students come from, which is why she applauded students in community college for their efforts to continue their education.

"They have made a choice to be in the classroom, even though they might be working one or two jobs, juggling child care, and raising families," she said. "My students have made the choice because they believe in themselves. And we believe in them too. We stand behind them."

Biden said as an educator she has seen how community colleges have changed many lives and that there are lessons to be learned about a community.

She used NTC students Dwight Carlston, Jerrilene Kenneth and Sherwin Becenti as three examples to exemplify three lessons about community.

Carlston's education background story exemplified, "Your community is more than the people around you, it is who you are."

Carlston received his associate of applied science degree in information technology after dropping out of a number of schools and eventually becoming American Indian Higher Education Consortium student congress president of all 38 tribal colleges.

To exemplify service to one's community, Biden spoke of Kenneth, who enlisted in the Army and served in Iraq and Afghanistan but returned and received her associate's degree in early childhood education.

The last lesson in community that Biden spoke of was taking a look at the support one needs and has received from NTC.

Biden spoke of Becenti, this year's Student of the Year, who dropped out of the University of New Mexico but found the support he needed at NTC.

Biden asked the graduates to look back and think of the support they received from NTC and how they are now a part of the NTC community that strives to do what it can for the students.

"You all care so deeply about this place that generations of your family have called home," she said in her speech. "You all have a stake in each other's future because you are now and will always be part of this shared community. So continue to reach out to one another, to encourage one another, to life up each other."

Shirlene Largo, 35, who received her associate of applied science degree in accounting, said she was excited to hear about Biden's arrival and speech.

"At first I couldn't believe it, but now it's sinking in ... I'm very lucky to be here," she said. "I'm actually getting my associate's while the Vice President of the United States' wife is going to be here. I'm afraid that if I see her I'm going to faint."

Largo has worked toward her accounting degree for about 15 years. A mother of four and the wife to a former military man, Ronnie Largo, she said they traveled a lot, but she vowed that nothing would stand in her way of receiving an education.

"Every time I had a chance when he got deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan I came back and I went back to school," she said. "Finally when my husband got out of the military he said, 'Go back to school. Get your degree.' So I said, 'OK.'"

Largo said she was also eager to fulfill the family tradition of NTC graduates. Her mother received her culinary arts certificate from NTC in the 1980s and was the school's head cook for 27 years before recently retiring.

"I feel accomplished, I feel excited, knowing that I have my family, my kids, my husband behind me, all these years, saying 'You can do it, you can do it,'" she said.

"I just wanted to thank NTC, everybody ... most of all I want to thank my mom. If it wasn't for her I wouldn't have graduated, I wouldn't have gotten my degree."

Following her speech, Biden was quick to leave the event, while Navajo Nation Poet Laureate Luci Tapahonso took the stage and recited a poem in honor of the graduates.

In a standing-room-only crowd, the 176 graduates received their degrees and certificates following Biden's speech and other speakers on the agenda.

It was a moment Lane Begay, 21, who received his certificate in carpentry, said he was most proud of.

"My older brother graduated from here in 2008, I'm just following his footsteps," Begay said.

Begay said he learned the art of carpentry from his father and decided to work toward his certificate two years ago. He said he looks forward to returning to NTC in the fall and starting work on his welding certificate.

With his family and friends in the audience and Biden on stage he said he couldn't think of anything better.

"I'm just happy to be here that's all," he said.

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