FARMINGTON — Graduates from three San Juan County colleges gathered Saturday morning on the San Juan College campus to celebrate their accomplishments at the spring commencement ceremony.

More than 900 students from San Juan College and the Farmington campuses of New Mexico Highlands University and the University of New Mexico filled the Learning Commons Plaza as friends and family members looked on from the audience.

For at least one graduate, it was his first time visiting San Juan College after earning his associate degree online from the School of Energy.

Zachary Vann traveled with his family from Houston, Texas, to Farmington to walk across the stage and receive his associate degree in occupational safety.

"Graduating, walking, the commencement ceremony, it's a rite of passage. I worked hard to get here, so I wanted to experience it," Vann said. "I wanted to see the school and see some of the faculty and staff that helped me along the way."

New Mexico Lt. Gov. John Sanchez was the guest speaker. He spoke to the crowd about his journey from being raised by a single mother of eight children, at one point living in a one-bedroom home, to serving as a high-ranking state official.

"I remember my mom saying to all of us kids, 'Nobody owes you anything in this world,'" Sanchez said. "If you want to make it, you're going to take advantage of opportunity."

Sanchez's speech touched on the themes of hard work, passion and tending to the important things in life, including staying healthy and managing relationships and finances.

Andrea Palmgren said it was a big deal for her to earn her associate degree in respiratory therapy from San Juan College because she had to quit her job and rely on her husband, Kevin, for financial support as she attended classes and raised the couple's three children.

She is currently working as a part-time respiratory therapist for San Juan Regional Medical Center.

"It was my life goal to do this. It was my calling to do this. It's my career," Palmgren said. "I think it's going to set a good example for my children. It's going to encourage them to do good in school and, hopefully, go to college themselves."

Student speaker Ben Bisland said it was both scary and amazing to speak on behalf of his friends and the faculty in San Juan College's nursing program.

During his speech, Bisland talked about how students at the college have forever changed their lives.

"We are people who decided to not become victims of circumstance. Instead, we decided to be a people of choice," Bisland said. "We have altered our destinies. As truth comes in many forms, we are courageous."

Walking off stage after receiving his diploma and posing for a photo, Bisland said he was feeling mixed emotions about giving his speech and his future.

"I'm scared. Beyond fear, I'm excited. This is the finest decision I've ever made in my life," Bisland said. "I hope that I was able to honor them because today is everybody's day."

Joshua Kellogg covers education forThe Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4527 and jkellogg@daily-times.com. Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.