Alixis Russell prepares to receive her diploma at the San Juan College commencement ceremony on Saturday. Russell, a senior at Piedra Vista High School
Alixis Russell prepares to receive her diploma at the San Juan College commencement ceremony on Saturday. Russell, a senior at Piedra Vista High School will also receive her high school diploma next Thursday, May 23. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)
FARMINGTON — Never give up.

That was the message delivered to more than 900 graduates at San Juan College's commencement ceremony Saturday. The college hosted a graduation for both its students and those who have earned degrees from the University of New Mexico at the San Juan Center.

Kendra Aspaas, who graduated from San Juan College with an associate degree in digital arts and design, was a student speaker. At commencement, Aspaas, who is deaf, shared the surprises and benefits of overcoming adversity. In her case, that happened with math classes.

"I became a regular fixture at the student success center. Hours and hours I was at the success center," Aspaas told the thousands in attendance in Learning Commons Plaza. "With all those struggles, my math grades actually improved. Later, the center hired me to tutor. There were other deaf students who needed tutoring."

For Aspaas, taking on challenge leads to greater personal discovery, and the ability to help others with empathy.

"If I only thought about the struggles I had with math, I never would have continued and never learned that what I love is graphic design and photography. So if I had only focused on the struggles, I never would have stopped and enjoyed the journey - never give up," she said.

San Juan County CEO Kim Carpenter, an alumni and former employee of the college, returned Saturday to tell his personal story to illustrate how adversity, achievement and acknowledgment have made his life richer and more meaningful.

"There's an office supply store that sells this easy button. I hate that easy button. It makes no sense at all because life itself is not easy," Carpenter said. "We're here because we simply did what we said we would do."

Carpenter recalled the story of his wife, Krickett, and the car accident that left her with no memory of the couple's relationship. After an expensive and drawn-out road back together again, the Carpenters married for a second time in 1996.
Family and friends cheer for their graduates at the San Juan College commencement ceremony on Saturday.
Family and friends cheer for their graduates at the San Juan College commencement ceremony on Saturday. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)


"You have to acknowledge where you come from, where you're going, who helped you there," he said. "Acknowledge what you have, how you got here and where you're headed."

Carpenter wrote a book, "The Vow," about the couple's ordeal, which was made into a major motion picture last year.

"Last year, we went on a speaking tour with (former vice presidential candidate) Sarah Palin," Carpenter said. "She said something that was very profound. She said, "God does not drive a parked car.' You have movement. You are moving."

Graduate Jayme Wilson, a mother of three, received a Fulbright Scholarship to attend the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, this fall. She plans to become a family doctor, inspired by the doctor who demonstrated true caring to her mother during her illness.

"My mom was given a diagnosis of six months to live, so we got a second opinion," Wilson said. "She went on to live more than 13 years more, which I completely credit her doctor for. If I can help one person the way he did for my mom, I'll be gratified."

One standout graduate was Alixis Russell, who strode proudly in a cap and gown to receive her associate degree in liberal arts on Saturday a special feat since she will graduate again, as a high school senior, in two weeks from Piedra Vista High School.

Two years ago, Russell, 17, decided to take advantage of the dual-credit classes offered through the college, which allow high school students from a dozen area schools to earn credit for courses taken at the college.

"Taking dual-credit classes opened my eyes to many things I had previously only read about," Russell said. "I got to see what I was really interested in through a lot of classes Spanish, science and criminal law, to name a few."

This fall, Russell plans to attend Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Ariz., and pursue a degree in psychology. She hopes to someday become an attorney.

Elfreda Yazzie and her daugter, Jessica Curley, also graduated on Saturday, a testament to the family's collective determination to accomplish their goals, despite the sacrifices that come along with them.
University of New Mexico graduate, Leticia Gallardo receives a kiss from her son Paul Gallardo during the San Juan College commencement ceremony on
University of New Mexico graduate, Leticia Gallardo receives a kiss from her son Paul Gallardo during the San Juan College commencement ceremony on Saturday. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)


Yazzie, who worked full-time as an adviser in the college's Native American Center while taking a full load of courses, received her master's degree in educational leadership through a partnership with the University of New Mexico at the San Juan Center.

"I want to go into a leadership role in education, inspired by the people I've worked (with) around here," said Yazzie, a mother of six. "From here, I plan to pursue my doctorate in education."

Yazzie gave birth to a baby, just four months ago.

"I like a challenge," she joked.

Her eldest daughter, Curley, 20, received an associate degree in liberal arts. She plans to attend Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. in the fall.

"I am excited to be a part of Fort Lewis' engineering program," Curley said. "There, I'll get to learn civil, mechanical and electrical engineering classes, which gives me options and hopefully will light the path."

 

James Fenton can be reached at jfenton@daily-times.com; 505-564-4621. Follow him on Twitter @fentondt.