Nearly 2,500 Northern Arizona University students formed a sea of blue and gold on the Skydome floor Friday, decked out in their graduation caps and gowns, honors cords and recognition from different student organizations.
In the bleachers, their family and friends cheered, clapped and blew air horns in celebration of their loved ones receiving the degrees they had worked on for years.
Ceremony keynote speaker Michelle Miller, a professor of psychology and director of the First Year Learning Initiative, stressed to the graduates that their new role was to become lifelong teachers, and share their knowledge in the work setting.
“It’s no coincidence that NAU started as a teachers' college,” Miller said to the graduates. “Now the university has expanded past just teacher preparation, but the core value of inspiring students to share what they know remains strong.”
Miller said the boundaries between serious learning and popular culture continue to blend, including sharing articles and information through social media for entertainment but also for serious discussion, and said students should continue to learn and share knowledge, even after receiving the diploma.
University President Rita Cheng told the graduates they were leaving the university in an exciting time for Arizona and for the nation.
“We have a world that is driven by knowledge, and your knowledge will be valued,” she said.
She told students that whether they thought they had their whole life mapped out, or were so confused by the future that they had no idea about the next step, their lives would always take unexpected turns, and lead them somewhere they never expected or planned.
“Each decision you make will be followed by another one,” she said.
Cheng shared her story about receiving her undergraduate degree with the students. She told them she went to five different institutions and took seven years to finally earn her bachelor’s degree.
Cheng acknowledged graduates who may have taken a nontraditional route to achieving their degree, including Justin Wilgus, who said he was not sure college was for him until he decided to reform his life.
Wilgus said he decided he would give college classes a try by going to Coconino Community college as a 24-year-old after struggling with substance abuse.
“I found out that I really liked learning, and I treated it like my job,” he said. “It was kind of a snowball effect, I wanted to get good grades, and then I got a scholarship so I had to maintain good grades.”
Wilgus, who was a Gold Axe winner and one of two students to win the President’s Prize, said he learned to capitalize on opportunities, like scholarships and grants, in order to put himself through college.
“I had a lot of help, and I was humble enough to accept it,” he said.
Wilgus, who will graduate summa cum laude from the College of Engineering, Forestry and Natural Sciences, plans to pursue a master’s degree in geology.
Wilgus grew up in Flagstaff and graduated from Coconino High School and volunteers at the Foundation House, a local organization that aids people recovering from addiction or incarceration, because it helped him in his time of need.
“I lived in the house in 2008, and I’ve been involved with it ever since,” he said. “It caters to our local community. You have to stay connected to where you came from. There is a whole village of people who have helped me so much, help is here.”
Another local Gold Axe winner has also kept her focus on improving her home community on the Hualapai Reservation.
Jewel Honga, the 2015 Miss Hualapai winner and the 2014 Miss Indian NAU, received her second bachelor’s degree Friday after receiving her first in May. The business management and marketing major said she wanted to bring her experience back to her hometown of Peach Springs to encourage younger community members to go to college.
“I want to bring honor to my family, my community and Native Americans in general,” she said.
Honga works as a cashier in her hometown, where she said people recognize her and know her name.
“I want to be visible in the community and make those connections,” she said. “I want to be in a leadership role in the tribe someday, I want to be tribal chairwoman and be on the tribal council.”
Honga, who attended Sinagua High school, plans to eventually go to graduate school, and will become one of just a handful of people in her community to pursue a higher degree.
She does youth outreach as part of her role as Miss Hualapai, and said she encourages students to get out of their comfort zone, which might mean leaving their home.
“I tell them it’s OK to leave,” Honga said. “The reservation will always be here, it won’t change much. But when you go out, teach people about who you are and where you come from. It’s OK to explore and see the world.”
Honga, who plans to compete in the Miss Indian World pageant, said some of her motivation comes from telling other people her goals.
“When you tell someone your goals, you will find people who want to help,” she said.
Honga said finishing a degree helps encourage younger generations to keep with their goals.
“It doesn’t matter how long it takes to finish,” she said. “As long as you finish and someone else sees you finish.”