CROWNPOINT — While U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill Biden, mispronounced "thank you" in the Navajo language, she still seemed to say all the right things to Navajo Technical College graduates on Friday.

"Ahe'hee," said Biden, though she pronounced it "ah-hee-hee," leaving many of the native speakers giggling, but also applauding.

Biden was Navajo Technical College's commencement speaker this year. She addressed 176 graduates and their families and friends at the ceremony Friday morning in Crownpoint. Biden's husband was not in attendance.

"I was surprised. Especially on the Navajo Nation, to have someone from the president's office?" said Malorie Yazzie, a Navajo Technical College graduate who received her associate degree in accounting on Friday.

Biden is one of the few top leaders from Washington, D.C. to visit the Navajo Nation in recent years. It was her first time.

She arrived in New Mexico on Thursday and spent time with Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and his wife, Martha, as well as various other tribal representatives.

She visited the college in part because, for the past two years, it has been the only community college in New Mexico and the only tribal college to be on the Aspen Institute's list of top 120 community colleges. The Aspen Institute is a nonprofit dedicated to dialogue among leaders through seminars, policy programs and conferences.

"Tribal colleges are especially unique places, particularly for students who might otherwise not have the opportunity to attain a higher education," Biden said.

Biden herself is a staunch supporter of community colleges. She taught English at community colleges for 30 years and still teaches full-time at a community college in Virginia.

She spoke several times of the influence community can have on students, and vice versa.

"You all care so deeply about this place that generations of your family have called home," she said. "You all have a stake in each other's future because you are now and always will be part of this shared community.
Navajo Technical College graduate Malorie Yazzie, right, pins a corsage on Georgiana Begay prior to commencement ceremonies beginning on Friday, May 17,
Navajo Technical College graduate Malorie Yazzie, right, pins a corsage on Georgiana Begay prior to commencement ceremonies beginning on Friday, May 17, 2013, in Crownpoint. (Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times)
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Biden even shared a few of the students' stories to support her message.

She commended Dwight Carlston, who graduated with an associate degree in environmental science and natural resources. He was raised by a single mother who worked two jobs and grew up without electricity or water.

He now is Student Congress president for all 38 tribal colleges in the country, and, last year, he was Navajo Technical College's student of the year.

Biden also spoke of Jerrilene Kenneth, who initially dropped out of college because her father passed away. She went on to enlist in the U.S. Army and served four years — one deployment to Iraq and one to Afghanistan.

She graduated with an associate degree in early childhood education on Friday.

Biden also told the story of Sherwin Becenti, who also dropped out during his first attempt at college, but then enrolled again when he met his wife, Michelle, also a Navajo Technical College student.

Becenti, this year's student of the year, graduated with an associate degree in environmental science.

Navajo Technical College's first-ever bachelor's degree recipient, Dody Begay, also heard kudos from Biden. Begay, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in information technology, already has been hired by Navajo Technical College.

"I came from a background where it's easier to get drugs, alcohol and get into a gang than it is to get higher education," Begay said.

For years, Begay worked in construction and spent his earnings on drugs and alcohol, he said, before realizing he wanted to go to college.

"I didn't really have anyone to show me down that road, to show me how to be a man," Begay said, explaining that his father died when he was 13 years old.

Graduates were honored that Biden, as well as various tribal leaders, attended the ceremony to hear their stories.

About 1,800 students — most of whom are from New Mexico or Arizona — attend the college. It mainly offers certificates and associate degrees and is hoping to offer more bachelor's degrees. It also is looking into offering master's degrees.

Jenny Kane can be reached at jkane@daily-times.com; 505-564-4636. Follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Kane