Big smiles at NCCC commencement
SARANAC LAKE — A class of 191 North Country Community College students celebrated earning their degrees on Saturday at the college’s first in-person commencement ceremony in three years.
There were 75 students in attendance and many more watching a livestream online. NCCC Communications Director Chris Knight said this was fitting, since some took classes online during the coronavirus pandemic.
Graduates at the ceremony hugged their families, fist-bumped professors and beamed as they walked up to get their diplomas.
Some wore decorated caps with slogans about why they attended college. “Busted mine to save yours,” read one worn by a nursing student. “For my kids,” read another.
Inspiration in a pandemic
NCCC President Joe Keegan said he hoped the graduates left NCCC “more” than they came — more knowledgeable, more skilled, more aware, more empathetic and more prepared. He asked them to use their new skills for good, and to help others in a world that desperately needs it.
He also took a moment to recognize the pain COVID-19 has brought.
“It has been incredibly difficult and challenging two years due to the pandemic,” Keegan said. “Our hearts go out to all those who suffered under the weight of the virus, from personal illness to loss of loved ones. It has been a difficult time.”
NCCC Board of Trustees Chair Steve Reed told students to keep in mind a coach’s slogan he saw in a locker room years ago — W.I.N., or to ask “What’s important now?” Doing this means adapting to the times, whether they’re good or bad. He said NCCC students had been through both.
“What’s important now?” he asked the graduates. He said that is taking pride in their work and enjoying the day.
Student Trustee Award winner Jessica Kemp had some inspirational words for her fellow graduates.
“Inspirational words,” Kemp said.
But it was inspirational acts, not words, that she wanted to talk about — choosing to attend college, doing it during a pandemic and the historic seasons for the Saints’ women’s soccer and basketball teams.
The soccer team made it to the Region 3 championship game for the first time ever in a 13-3 season. The basketball team went all the way the NJCAA-DIII tournament and placed in 5th, capping off a 22-5 season.
Kemp warned against a tendency in the social media era to want to skip to the good part or hide imperfections. She said the tireless work it takes to get something done should be shared, respected and honored.
A voice for educational equity
Commencement speaker Minerva White, of the St. Regis Mohawk tribe, spoke on the extensive life of indigenous education advocacy she’s led and the fight for Native American representation in schools she was a part of while living most of her 87 years living on the Akwesasne reservation.
White started with a history lesson.
In 1835, New York assumed the education of indigenous children with state schools on reservations. In 1950, the state consolidated those schools into their local school districts.
No vote was ever taken on this, she said, and in the new arrangement, Native Americans were prevented by state law from voting and serving on school boards. The tribe could only select one representative to listen in on school board meetings, but were not given a vote on the board as other district townships were.
In 1968, she became the chair of the Mohawk parents educational committee.
White said 35% of students in Salmon River schools were Mohawk at the time, but they and their parents were denied a voice in decisions.
It took a week-long boycott of Mohawk children being taken out of schools and a federal court case, which the tribe won, to change state law to allow Native Americans to sit on school boards.
White ran for a seat and won. She sat on the board for 10 years. It was tense at first, she said. Fellow board members wouldn’t look her in the eye. But she strove to change relationships and improve educational opportunities for Native American children.
“There is no equity in keeping your mouth shut when you know that things are not right,” White said.
In the following decades she continued to fight for more education rights in a job with the state Education Department and to get the reservation a federally-funded library.
Today, the Salmon River school district is 63% Mohawk students, she said, the superintendent and the chair of the board of education are both Native Americans, and Mohawk history and language are taught in school.
On Saturday, at least one NCCC student receiving their diploma had graduated from Salmon River, Jennifer Dejung.
Still, White said she sees racism and hatred existing today, and implored NCCC graduates to speak up as she had.
“You, too, have the power to move your community forward if you are willing to risk the familiar comfort of where you are in your life, by using your voice,” White said.