Transforming reality at Taos' community college commencement

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Like many students at the University of New Mexico-Taos, Amanda Cantu is the first in her family to graduate from college. Finally walking across the stage at the 2017 commencement ceremony Friday (May 12) was a goal she achieved not by ease or by dropping out of life to focus only on academics, but by embracing higher education throughout the daily demands of working two jobs and raising five kids.

The financial aid that paid for the first half of her courses ran out and Cantu was forced to pay out of pocket. While the college “reached out and helped me,” she said, every class was another bill to be paid. The last course for her degree came with a $500 price tag.

“Some anonymous person found funding for me. Like an angel, they donated the money to help me [finish my degree],” she said.

“It took a lot of hard work. This is a big accomplishment for me,” said Cantu, who earned her associate degree in applied science. 

For the first time in the history of UNM-Taos, the number of graduates was so great the ceremonies and celebrations took place across two nights to make ample room for the hundreds of friends and family members who turn out for the annual ritual — a testament to just how ingrained in the community the college has become since its inception more than a decade ago.

The Sagebrush Inn and Conference Center saw the graduation of about 90 high school equivalency students on Thursday (May 11). Friday’s commencement honored graduates receiving associate degrees, bachelor’s and master’s degrees and certificates in programs as wide-ranging as woodworking and integrative massage.

All told, 85 students received an associate degree in six programs, 45 students received certificates in 10 programs, 12 received a bachelor’s and one received her master’s. At least three graduates were veterans and more than 80 walked across the stage having earned honors in their course of study.

Alana Grier sang the national anthem in the ceremony. Richard Archuleta and Gilbert Suazo Sr. then sang the “Taos Pueblo Tribal Flag Song,” followed with an invocation by the Rev. Ted Wiard.

Shawn Duran, tribal administrator for Taos Pueblo and a UNM-Taos alumna, delivered the keynote address.

“Originality starts with creativity of an idea. But that’s not all. We have to take the initiative to make that vision a reality. Sometimes that means taking a stand or putting yourself out there,” Duran said, calling up the history of civil rights leaders and the Taos Pueblo fight for “the mighty Blue Lake,” which was given back to the tribe by President Richard Nixon in 1970 following a decadeslong campaign to reclaim the mountain lake and surrounding forest from the federal government.

“None of these people were satisfied with what happened. It can be scary and uncomfortable to take a stand. But as creators — made by our creator — we have the potential to transform our reality … our community, country and world,” Duran said.

Big visions of an upended status quo may be the destination, but the engine that gets one there is consistent commitment and fortitude. As graduates waited to walk into the hall to the familiar yet inspiring tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” The Taos News spoke with several soon-to-be-degreed Taoseños about the dedication it took for them to arrive at that moment.

Vicente Fernandez, a native Taoseño, graduated with an associate degree in liberal arts. “When you’re young, you get married and have a family to raise. That’s your No. 1 priority and a lot of stuff falls by the wayside. It’s a dream I’ve always had to get my degree. It’s never too late,” said Fernandez, 63.

After serving 41 years as a National Guardsman, including a 2010 deployment to Iraq, Fernandez retired in 2013. Since then, he’s taken on leadership roles in his local acequia and mutual domestic water association. Everything he’s learning, he said, “I can use to help out my community.”

Fernandez credits this accomplishment partially to the staff and instructors who guided him through his studies. Fernandez is looking to keep going — for a bachelor’s and eventually a master’s, too.

The long and sometimes arduous journey made the fruit that much sweeter for another graduate.

Anita Bringas, an institutional researcher and data analyst for UNM-Taos, had served as the coordinator of graduation festivities for three years. She stepped up to the task again this spring.

Bringas didn’t watch Friday’s commencement ritual unfold from the stage or the back of the room, but from the sea of graduate caps, cords and gowns.

After receiving her associate degree from UNM-Taos several years ago and going on to take distance courses for bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Bringas herself became a graduate of the UNM School of Public Administration.

A team of colleagues handled the logistics of Friday’s affair so Bringas would have the time to go to her convocation in Albuquerque before driving 133 miles back to Taos to shake hands with and hug the teachers and community members with whom she’s worked for years.

One person she hugged was Taos Pueblo’s Duran, the person who motivated and inspired Bringas to pursue another degree.

Bringas was the last student to walk across the stage. As she did, Duran took the tassel on her mortarboard cap and placed it to the other side, an intimate gesture of the potential to transform reality.

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