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CROWNPOINT — When recapping his six year journey to earn a bachelor's degree at Navajo Technical University, Darrick Lee called the experience a "privilege."

The dedication and hard work displayed by Lee, who earned the degree in electrical engineering, resulted in him being named student of the year and providing the student address during the NTU spring commencement on May 17.

"Whether you're receiving a certificate, an associate, a bachelor's degree or even a master's degree, just know that you've achieved something that a lot of people don't have an opportunity to do," Lee said to a class comprised of more than 140 graduates.

The ceremony on Friday included the university bestowing its first honorary doctoral degree to state Sen. John Pinto.

The 94-year-old held the honorary Doctor of Public Service degree after it was given to him by NTU President Elmer Guy.

"I think you should call me Doctor Senator John Pinto," the Democratic senator said with a chuckle.

Pinto has represented San Juan and McKinley counties in the state Senate since 1977.

He was selected to receive the honorary degree based on the recommendation of a committee established by the university, which evaluated his contributions to the Navajo Nation, according to the university.

Pinto, who is a Marine Corps veteran and a Navajo Code Talker, thanked the university then acknowledged family members in attendance.

He also commended the graduates and their parents for supporting their educational endeavors.

NTU president Guy said the senator is an avid supporter of the university.

"He has always pushed Navajo Technical University's requests for funding and he has worked with his peers," Guy said.

Conferring the first honorary doctoral degree is part of the university's observance of its 40th anniversary.

NTU began as the Navajo Skills Center in 1979 and evolved to the Crownpoint Institute of Technology then to Navajo Technical College. It has carried the university title since 2013.

"While we celebrate the past and the accomplishments of each of you – graduates, we still need to continue rolling our sleeves up and reaching for new accomplishments," Guy said.

This includes launching a pre-medical program this year, he said adding the program will be named after the first Navajo medical doctor, Taylor McKenzie.

McKenzie, who died in April 2007, was the tribe's first chief medical officer and served as vice president from 1999 to 2003.

Graduates heard an inspiring speech by Winona LaDuke, an internationally renowned activist for the environment and for social justice. 

LaDuke is Anishinaabe and executive director of Honor the Earth, an organization she co-founded with Amy Ray and Emily Salier of the music group, Indigo Girls.

In her remarks, she reflected on the energy transition the Navajo Nation faces and how the graduates will take the lead in developing that change, including investment in solar and wind projects.

"No time like the present to rebuild your energy economy," she said.

She said now is the time to end the injustice done by energy developers to Native peoples, including using the land to produce energy for urban populations while nearby households remain without electricity.

"Your nation will be a leader in this. I see this and know this. We are all counting on you to do the right thing," LaDuke said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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