The San Juan College campus overflowed with families, friends and supporters Saturday for the 2023 graduation ceremony.
The processional, led by new SJC mascot Blaze, featured a vast wave of purple-robed students on a sunny spring morning.
Student speaker Angelica Castillo discussed the many challenges and goals she faced after moving to the area from Cuidad Juarez, Mexico.
“One of the biggest decisions I made while pursuing my degree was becoming a U.S. citizen … I knew it would open the door for more opportunities,” Castillo said. She said at one point while studying for citizenship, serving as a student-worker in the school of humanities and taking classes, she got tired and felt like giving up.
Castillo sought help from her adviser, Dawn Myers, who reassured her by saying, “You have the heart of a social worker, and I have no doubt you’ll be a great one.”
Castillo said she is excited to close this first chapter of her college education and start writing a new chapter by working toward her degree in social work at Western New Mexico University.
“Future San Juan College students and graduates, I encourage you to keep learning and cherish every moment of what everyone calls the college experience. Lastly, great things take time. Be patient and one day you’ll be here … celebrating your success,” Castillo said.
Gayle Dean, chairman of SJC Foundation, presented the Allison Faculty Excellence Award to Laura Black, who has overseen the veterinarian technician program, the largest program at SJC, for the past five years. “This program serves over 1,000 students every year all over the United States and internationally,” Dean said.
“In addition to teaching many courses, our awardee oversees eight full-time and up to 20 part-time staff faculty in 50 different states and time zones. Testimonials from students included, ‘This school has been the best thing to happen to my professional career.’”
Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett, who was the guest speaker, lauded the group that came out to support the grads. He asked the graduates to look around and see the numbers who were there to celebrate them “because today is about you!”
“Don’t forget these people. These are the people that you’re going to rely on for the rest of your lives, so make sure that you’re taking care of those bonds, those relationships. Take the opportunity to call one another … keep in touch with one another, because those people love you,” Duckett said.
Duckett, who was born in Newport Beach, California, and grew up in Denver, said he moved to Farmington after his parents divorce when he was 15 years old and graduated from Farmington High School in 1996.
Duckett said one his champions, Frank Stimmick, was in the audience that day. “I’ve always found myself very blessed to have people in my life that I respected … people that I emulated and wanted to be like,” he said.
Stimmick was the assistant principal at FHS and gave Duckett his first opportunity to give a public speech.
Duckett studied two years of secondary education before switching to a business major. He worked for Hastings Entertainment for 12 years, and by age of 26 was district manager of 10 stores in West Texas. He said the experience at that young age was a life lesson in self-sacrifice.
“And then one night at work a man came in with a gun and robbed me and my staff at gunpoint, and that same week my house was broken into, and I thought it would be nice to be in law enforcement,” Duckett said.
He earned a degree in criminology from University of New Mexico, but his wife was not fond of the idea, so he remained focused on business.
When the Farmington Hastings was going out of business, Duckett started his own insurance agency. He said after getting involved with Leadership San Juan, he decided to “give back to the community” and run for city council then mayor.
He said he understood all the hard work and perseverance required of the students. “But this next step is really, really important. Take what you’re learning, put it into work and work hard,” Duckett said.
He stressed the importance of “giving of yourself” to prove your worth, being adaptable, reliable and able to compromise.
“I am the first member of my family to graduate from a university. … That was a big thing, so I can respect and understand exactly what you all are going through today,” Duckett said. “Those are very meaningful moments. … Make sure you’re surrounding yourself with good people and taking care of the family who loves you very much.”
SJC President Toni Hopper Pendergrass presented Duckett with a large pot made for him by local artist Don Ellis.
“This year’s graduating class ranges in age from 17 to 70,” Pendergrass said. To demonstrate the diversity of those graduating, Pendergrass asked those who worked, and those who were parents, grandparents or who traveled more than 50 miles per day to stand.
SJC officials also recognized honor roll students, veterans, students who will receive their high school diplomas in addition to their associate’s degrees at the ceremony, as well as UNM and Highlands University students graduating along with SJC graduates that day.
The presentation of diplomas concluded the ceremony with Scott Michlin, KSJE station manager and Megan Culllip, KSJE show host, reading the graduates’ names.