A new generation of young adults took their first steps into the rest of their lives Saturday at Fort Lewis College’s commencement ceremony held at Ray Dennison Memorial Field.
About 413 students, including 28 Master of Arts in education students, graduated from FLC this weekend. A major theme in presentations from college officials, including President Tom Stritikus, and guest keynote speaker U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, was that the world – including rural America – needs the graduating class of 2023 now more than ever.
Vilsack said sustainability, resiliency and innovation in the face of climate change is needed from new graduates, who have the opportunity to make the world a better place.
Vilsack, who was appointed by President Joe Biden to once again lead the Department of Agriculture as its secretary, a position he also held in President Barack Obama’s administration.
The secretary of agriculture is tasked with strengthening the economy and connecting it to rural America and historically underserved communities, Janet Lopez, FLC board of trustees member, said in an introduction.
“At his heart, I really believe the secretary of agriculture uses his platform to address complex and difficult issues with the basic foundation that we are all connected by food, water and the land,” she said.
She said Vilsack is credited with addressing systemic racism that has been historically present in the USDA and has worked to “right past wrongs against farmers of ranchers who were women or were from communities of color.”
“This work has included clearing a path for the creation of the Native American Ag Fund, the largest nonprofit organization devoted solely to serving Native American farming and ranching communities,” she said, adding FLC is a recipient of some of that funding.
Vilsack said the graduating class of 2023 is particularly unique; students survived the global COVID-19 pandemic, often in tandem with raising families, managing work responsibilities and maintaining a grade-point average to graduate.
“What it tells me about you is that you’re extraordinarily resilient. That you’ve got grit. You understand hard work. And that you are indeed prepared to transform the world,” he said.
He charged graduating students with transforming the American food system, to protect land, water and natural resources, to improve soil health and to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into the way the country produces its food.
But students don’t need to take up farming, ranching or production to play a part in building the future of agriculture.
Soil scientists and conservationists, crop consultants, contractors, foresters, researchers, machinists and manufacturers are all needed in the world of agriculture as the industry braces for the future, he said.
He said embracing climate-smart and regenerative agriculture, can create ecosystem-conscious markets that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a net zero.
“You can be a hauler. You can be part of a sales force. And by the way, you can also work for the USDA,” he said.
Vilsack repeatedly reminded students to apply for a job with the USDA, which drew laughs from the audience.
After tassels were turned to the left and graduation caps were launched skyward by cheering graduates, friends and family headed to the FLC clock tower for a reception where the party would continue.
Priscilla Moreno, a sociology and human services major who graduated Saturday, said she is a first-generation graduate from her family who live in El Paso, Texas.
She was elated to finally achieve her degree, a feat she worked toward for eight years.
“I’m just so excited. I’m super happy,” she said. “I screamed for every person who walked across the stage and I’m just really grateful for the people who helped me along the way to get to this point.”
Moreno spent her senior year working with Alternative Horizons, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting survivors of domestic violence through criminal-court advocacy, civil legal assistance, counseling and by spreading awareness.
“I worked with Alternative Horizons and helped about 40 survivors who were affected by domestic violence, which is pretty cool,” she said. “It’s good to be able to be there to help others in that way.”
She performed outreach to raise awareness and spread the word about domestic violence.
“I just want everyone to know that they deserve love and they’re worthy to be here,” she said.
With graduation in the bag, Moreno plans to save as much money as she can to move back to her community in El Paso and help her family, as well as pursue some form of social work.
She also worked with TRIO Student Support Services, another organization that aids first generation college students, as well as FLC’s WellPAC Peer Support Office, a wellness peer advisory council. She appreciates the chance to work with the organizations, make memories and network.
“I want people to know that it’s possible no matter the obstacles that come your way. It’s possible to get your degree. Thank you to everyone who helped to get me to this point,” she said.
Christian Haverly, who earned his engineering degree, comes from Mancos. He started his college career in 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world.
He said the hardest part of the pandemic for him was dealing with online classes, particularly finals. And he recognized the pandemic made it harder for professors to teach in online-only classes.
But he is glad to reach graduation and move on to bigger and better things.
“I’m stoked. I’m freaking stoked,” he said.
Haverly is looking for jobs in the Salt Lake City region and plans to attend flight school to pursue a helicopter pilot’s license. He hopes to get a job with Black Diamond Equipment, a mountain equipment company, as a testing engineer and brings structural engineering experience to the table.
His favorite aspect of his time at FLC was the people, he said.
“We have a really tight engineering class. The engineering senior class – really good friends. That’s my favorite part,” he said. “And solid faculty. A lot of them, I can consider friends at this point.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled FLC graduate Priscilla Moreno’s name.