New Mexico Highlands University Celebrates a Belated Commencement Ceremony After a Challenging Spring Semester

Photo of graduate with Dr. MinnerAugust 6, 2022

Graduate and undergraduate students at New Mexico Highlands University celebrated a belated commencement ceremony on Saturday, August 6, 2022, at the John A. Wilson Complex in Las Vegas.  

The ceremony, which is typically held in May each year, was postponed due to the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Wildfires. The wildfires brought a wave of evacuations, heavy smoke and ash, and an influx of first responders into Las Vegas and the New Mexico Highlands University campus.  

Graduates on Saturday had much to celebrate individually, and also collectively. The wildfires followed two and a half years of pandemic learning.  

Highlands University President Sam Minner began his commencement speech by acknowledging just how much it took students to earn their degrees given the global and local challenges they have faced while finishing school. Drawing on quotes from thinkers he admires, Minner offered guidance to graduates as they begin to make big, post-degree life decisions. He reminded graduates that success can only be achieved by experiencing failure, and he urged them to seek inner peace.  

“The second bit of sincere advice is captured by the quote from the psychologist Carl Rogers who said, ‘the good life is a process not a state of being, not a destination,’” Minner said. “The trip itself is sometimes better than the destination.”   

Lieutenant Governor Howie Morales delivered the 2022 Highlands University commencement address. Morales, who grew up in Silver City and was the first in his family to go to college, is a strong supporter of public education. He congratulated students for their perseverance through a very tough set of circumstances.  

“Doing the coursework alone is a challenge, showing up to class, handling all the responsibilities of what needs to be done as a college student and as a parent and as an employee is not easy,” Morales said. “Every single one of you overcame the many challenges that people in one in a hundred years have not had to experience—and you did that, you survived. And you show us a lot of resiliency that we can all learn from.”  

Morales acknowledged several of Highlands University’s major accomplishments in the last few years, including the construction and celebration of the Cultural Park, the new mental health initiative that is launching on campus this fall, the $20 million that the NMHU New Mexico Forest and Watershed Institute received from the federal government for wildfire mitigation, and the success of President Minner, the Board of Regents, and the faculty and staff unions in working to raise the minimum wage on campus to $15 an hour. 

“I would hope that you know where home is and that you would always remember that your home needs you and if there’s ever an opportunity to stay or come back here to New Mexico, I would hope that you would take advantage of that,” Morales said. “We need your perseverance, we need your dedication, we need the sacrifices that you’ve shown over the last two and a half years to help propel New Mexico into the state that we know that we are we can become.”  

Undergraduate and graduate students from a wide range of disciplines walked across the stage in purple and black robes, respectively. Among them were international students, traditional students, and local figures such as Steve Leger of Love Music who earned his bachelor of arts this year in music and music production. His band, Steve Leger and Friends, provided the processional music for the ceremony.  

Andrew Eugene Centeno earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice this year and said that he was grateful to walk in the commencement ceremony because he had not been able to do so at his junior college graduation due to the pandemic.  

“I really wanted to walk—it was a very memorable moment for me and my family,” Centeno said. “It felt good walking across the stage and getting my certificate.”  

Centeno said he’s already in the process of securing employment with a county sheriff’s department in California, where he said he’ll be able to use his degree.  

Caitlin Trujillo earned a master’s degree in curriculum instruction and said that on top of the other challenges the student body faced jointly, she also had a baby halfway through her graduate program.  

“I’m from Pecos and my husband is from here. We met here at Highlands and we got our bachelor’s together,” Trujillo said. “I love Highlands. Highlands has been so supportive and it’s a great community. I really enjoyed coming to school here.”  

Trujillo said she works in Santa Fe at the May Center for Learning where she teaches kids with learning differences. This year she will have her first full second-grade classroom. Despite all of the challenges the last few years have brought, including helping her husband’s family with the effects of the fires, Trujillo said the challenges only made her want to work harder.  

“I felt like it gave me more motivation to find the positive when so many things were going wrong,” Trujillo said. “I really wanted to continue to do good, and to do good for my students at my school, too, because they’ve been so supportive of me. There’s just so many people that support me around I wanted to make them proud, and to do good for my son for him to look up to later on in life.”