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‘They will see Navajo Prep’: Graduates celebrate with culture, community

Navajo Prep juniors Ms. Hozhó Naasha Hailey Thomas and Atsa hastin Anthony Cruz lead the graduates onto the football field during the processional part of the commencement exercises on Saturday, May 18, 2024. (Curtis Ray Benally/Special to the Tri-City Record)
Navajo Nation first lady, vice president emphasize identity

Supporters from around the Four Corners joined together at the Navajo Preparatory High School football field to celebrate graduates on Saturday.

It was a showcase of institution recognition and cultural appreciation as graduates walked onto the field with the school Navajo basket and the planting stick, following staff members.

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Graduates made their way to the field, displaying their individuality, including traditional dress and placing quotations on their caps.

During her address, first lady of the Navajo Nation, Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, started by thanking Navajo Prep for allowing students to express themselves.

This year marked another increase in the graduating class, with 64 seniors being certified to walk, Head of School Shawna Becenti told the Tri-City Record.

School data show most students come from the northern and eastern agencies of the Navajo Nation, Becenti said.

Beginning the ceremony, Landon Succo greeted guests and sang the national anthem in Navajo. Marcus Nahala, student body president, read a land acknowledgment statement that mentioned ancestral Diné lands.

Navajo Nation First Lady Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren addresses the Navajo Preparatory School's Class of 2024, staff, faculty, guests, family and spectators during the commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 18, 2024, at Eagles Stadium. (Curtis Ray Benally/Special to the Tri-City Record)
Navajo Prep's Jude Thomas makes his valedictorian address to his classmates, guests, and spectators during the commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 18, 2024, at Eagles Stadium. (Curtis Ray Benally/Special to the Tri-City Record)
Navajo Prep's Cayele Wilson co-salutatorian gives her remarks to her classmates, guests, and spectators during the commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 18, 2024, at Eagles Stadium. (Curtis Ray Benally/Special to the Tri-City Record)
Navajo Nation Vice President Richelle Montoya addresses the Navajo Preparatory School's Class of 2024, staff, faculty, guests, family and spectators during the commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 18, 2024, at Eagles Stadium. (Curtis Ray Benally/Special to the Tri-City Record)
Navajo Prep's Aniya Johnson is named and recognized as the Fighting Eagles Female Athlete of the Year at the commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 18, 2024, at Eagles Stadium. (Curtis Ray Benally/Special to the Tri-City Record)
Navajo Prep graduate Natalie Cly takes a selfie with classmates Hayley Yazzie and KayDence Low Dog before the start of the commencement exercises on Saturday, May 18, 2024, in the Eagles Nest. (Curtis Ray Benally/Special to the Tri-City Record)
Navajo Prep graduates (left to right) Shandiin Bowman, Naomi Silago, Nalanaya Austin, Starlit Begay, Maureen Ford and Julia Begay make a video for TikTok before the start of the commencement exercises on Saturday, May 18, 2024, in the Eagles Nest. (Curtis Ray Benally/Special to the Tri-City Record)

Keith Neil, associate head of school and operations, took time to address the guests, including Navajo Nation officials, school administrators, tribal leaders and people who have served or are serving in the armed forces.

Speaker Starlit Begay, senior class president, encouraged her fellow graduates on their next endeavors.

“As we prepare to embark on diverse paths, let us carry lessons learned in within these walls,” she said. “Some include resilience, compassion, courage and being able to write a 20-page essay in two nights.”

Following Begay, Navajo Nation Vice President Richelle Montoya expressed her expectations for the graduates.

“Whatever it is that you are going to do,” she said, “do your very best at it every single day.”

Montoya reminded the graduates to be kind to those around them but most important, to take care of themselves.

“Remember that when you walk into this world, it’s not just you … this world is looking at,” she said, “They are looking at your grandparents, your parents – they are looking at Navajo Prep.”

Montoya is the first Navajo woman to be elected into the vice president office. She said she wants to see these graduates also to achieve the designation as “the first.”

“I want to see the first in all of you,” Montoya said.

Speaker Jude Thomas, valedictorian, used his time to thank those who helped him get to graduation day, and he challenged his classmates to seize every opportunity while continuing to be who they are.

In speaking with the Tri-City Record, Thomas said it was not until Wednesday night, the week before, that he learned of the academic designation.

“I just took the time to reflect on it. It was always something I wanted to do,” he said. “I had to take that some time to process that I actually achieved this milestone.”

Thomas wrote his speech while on his way to Santa Fe with his family. He said it was that time that he cherishes because of the laughter and conversations he had with them.

Writing the speech, Thomas wanted to have that balance between thanking individuals and relating to his classmates.

“At the end of the day, being the valedictorian takes everybody – the staff, my friends, the students – everybody’s helped lift me to get to this point,” he said.

Thomas attended Navajo Prep as a day student and thanked Cheryl Wolfe, English teacher, for being an unofficial therapist for himself and his classmates.

Jeffrey Tome, admissions coordinator, was a faculty member Thomas wanted to thank for his efforts to bring staff and students together.

As a graduate and looking back at the school, Thomas said he saw many communities at the school.

“Underneath all of these little subgroups there’s just this one giant community where it’s just all people just trying to be the best version of themselves,” he said.

This year, two salutatorians took the stage, Cayele Wilson and Jordyn Begay, to thank individuals and reflect on the memories.

Guest speaker Andy Nez, delegate of the Navajo Nation Council, expressed his gratitude for allowing him to be in the presence of NP graduates.

Nez highlighted the accomplishments made by the graduates, including a student who put together a cookbook for her senior project for those who live in a dormitory away from family.

“As you go on to your own personal and education endeavors,” he said, “there were many prayers and offerings to welcome you into our world – so wherever you go always remember that you matter.”

Before graduates received their diplomas, some were honored by administrators for their work and identities.

The Jicarilla Apache tribe honored the three students who were graduating. Sixteen students were recognized for their work to be a candidate of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.

Two students were honored for their athletic endeavors and 10 seniors received scholarships from the school.

During the presentation of diplomas, students were also identified by their clan, hometown and their college of choice. Some towns were near, such as Kirtland and Shiprock, while others were in Arizona, such as Kaibito and Many Farms.

Colleges also were near and far. Some will attend San Juan College, and others will go out of state, to University of Portland in Oregon and Emory University in Atlanta.

“They’ve all selected some very prestigious colleges and are also taking advantage of our local schools here that we need to be proud of,” Becenti said.

Becenti said what makes the Class of 2024 unique is the diverse student body of scholars and leaders.

“I feel like this class have really found their voice, they showcase their desire to be champions, literally,” she said.