This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of delivering the keynote address to the American Indian Program Spring Graduation Recognition Ceremony. The ceremony celebrated students who have participated in the American Indian Program at NMSU and will be graduating this spring. It was a very meaningful event (great job Michael Ray and Britney Stout!), and I was touched and honored to be asked to speak.
My talk dealt with many themes common to graduation ceremonies: the value of a college degree; the need for lifelong learning in a rapidly changing world; and, the importance of essential skills that a college education is designed to impart (e.g., critical thinking, complex reasoning, communication). Where it diverged was recognizing the special challenges faced by our American Indian students in completing a college degree.
Very few people coast to an undergraduate or graduate degree. For virtually everyone, it entails hard work, determination, and sacrifice. But, the challenge is often greater for our American Indian students. Many of them come from tightly knit communities, with distinct cultures and traditions. The adjustments they must make to fit into an unfamiliar culture and the high-pressure world of a university can leave them feeling out of place or adrift. To persist with their studies requires strength and determination beyond that which is demanded of most students.
The numbers tell the story here. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 37% of White, non-Hispanic Americans over the age of 25 have a baccalaureate degree. Among American Indians the percentage is 14%.
So, I congratulated the soon-to-be graduates for their good work and persistence in achieving a baccalaureate or advanced degree. I also reminded them that, although they deserve great credit for their achievement, it would not have been possible without support from family and friends. I asked them to remember to say thank you to those who pulled them up when they needed it. Few of us achieve hard things without help.
Finally, I gently encouraged them, as I encourage all newly minted graduates, to give back to their communities. Their communities are proud of them and are looking to them to provide leadership and inspiration. I am confident their NMSU education has prepared them to meet these expectations and more.
With all best wishes,