UNM–Taos Nursing graduates Nicole Scotto, left, and Michelle Janati-Ataei are hugged by Holy Cross Hospital RN Jill McLoughlin, center, outside the Sagebrush Conference Center before the UNM–Taos commencement held May 16.

UNM-Taos graduation a community event

By Bill Knief

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Graduation week is bittersweet, I think, for everyone — the graduates themselves, their families and friends, former teachers, college instructors, employers, onlookers, neighbors.

It is one of those occasions when we become most acutely aware of change, and the passage of time. It’s supposed to be a winding down of the semester, but instead, each year, it feels more like a pent-up explosion of emotion and holiday spirit.

On the one hand, we celebrate the well-earned payoff for long hours of labor and the many hard sacrifices it takes to succeed. But there is also that poignant awareness that someone close to us has changed, and moved forward in dealing with life’s challenges. So the outward joy and exuberance are tempered with a touch of sadness, for truly, a paradigm shift has occurred within a person that we hold dear. I saw more than a few faculty and staff members, friends and family brush away a tear or two as they cheered.

A friend from Boston who is a full-fledged Taoseño now, remarked admiringly at how graduation, from kindergarten to the heights of higher education, impacts and involves the entire Taos community in celebration.

“They don’t do that where I come from,” he said. “And that’s too bad, really. Graduation is just graduation. No big deal.”

It is to us, though, at every level. Drive through any neighborhood in the county and you’ll see the off-road parking, the balloons tied to road signs and the yard parties that mark both a student’s accomplishment and their family’s pride.

Take Dustin Torres, for example. He was getting his Associate Degree in Applied Science. I asked him what caused him to go back and finish after dropping out of high school. “Mine was the class of 2004,” he said, “and I didn’t get my GED until around 2007. It took me a while. I began college back in 2010 because I was getting my family together and I felt that furthering my education was a good way to have a better future. That’s my reason. Family.”

In an interview prior to graduation, UNM-Taos Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill touched on a similar theme: “I’ve talked with many students at UNM-Taos who are pursuing their education not only because they want to advance their careers, but because they want to influence their children and grandchildren — to role model for them that this is a path that is worthy of the time and effort it takes to pursue.”

But the path toward a certificate or degree is not an easy one. Quoting former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in her opening comments graduation night, O’Neill said that a person is like a teabag; you cannot tell how strong they are until you put them in hot water.

“The environment here is breathtaking, but it is also harsh, and when I think about the generations of people who have survived here for centuries, I believe there is a resourcefulness here, a determination, that gives people an extra level of courage and makes them strong.”

Our guest speaker this year was Dr. Mario Rivas, a tenured professor in psychology at Merritt College in Oakland, Calif., and a widely respected lecturer, author and consultant. Dr. Rivas challenged the graduates to use their skills and their hard-won credentials because “we were born to stand and to be seen and to be heard and to be competent.

“Our bodies were not born to be afraid. Our bodies and our minds and our spirits were born to be complete, and to be strong, and to follow the road to your unique expression of yourself. It’s your birthright to achieve completeness. Be one with yourself. Use the power of your mind, because were born to be powerful and loving, and to make the world a better place.”

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