You may not have heard of Navajo Technical College (NTC) in the tiny town of Crownpoint, New Mexico, but Dr. Jill Biden has. The Second Lady of the United States is slated to deliver the commencement address for NTC's 33rd graduating class on May 17.
NTC is on this administration's radar after twice being recognized as part of the top 10 percent of U.S. community colleges by the Aspen Institute, and the only tribal college named to the prestigious list of 120 institutions in 2012. "There is an interest in the Obama administration reaching out to the Indian communities and tribal colleges," said NTC president Dr. Elmer Guy, Navajo. "Last year the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, gave the commencement, and he may have had something to do with Biden coming. They saw we were doing exciting things."
NTC boasts high retention and graduation rates, as well as exceptional job placement for graduates. Offering 20 certificate programs, 15 associate degrees, and six baccalaureate degrees to a student population of nearly 1,800, many of the programs are designed to help the Navajo Nation develop economic opportunities and sources of employment on or near the reservation.
"We concentrate on programs you don't see too many Natives pursuing," Guy said, such as industrial engineering and digital manufacturing. "Usually minority students are looked at as low-performing, but we believe our students can do this work with a high level of proficiency."
Biden, an educator for more than 30 years, teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College, the second largest community college in the nation. She is believed to be the only Second Lady to hold a paying job during her husband's vice presidency. ICTMN spoke to her about her upcoming address.
Why did you choose to speak at Navajo Technical College?
As a community college educator, I know how important community colleges are to students, employers, and communities all over our country. I also know Navajo Technical College has been rated one of the nation’s top community colleges by the Aspen Institute the past two years, so I was pleased to accept the invitation to speak at this year’s commencement and look forward to learning more about NTC.
Do you have a personal connection with the Navajo Nation or an interest in Native American issues?
I don’t have a personal connection, but as a lifetime educator, I’m looking forward to learning more about the Navajo Nation.
What are some topics you plan to speak about at the commencement?
Graduation is such a special time. I plan to congratulate the graduates on all they have accomplished already and hopefully inspire them as they embark on their next journey, whether that is moving into the workforce, continuing their education or finding other ways to give back to their community.
The Obama administration is investing in schools that prepare students for careers in emerging industries with a $2 billion federal grant program. How do Native American community colleges fit into these higher educational goals for the U.S.?
The President believes that education is a critical investment necessary to strengthen the middle class, create jobs, and grow the economy. Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are key to realizing our goal of leading the world in college graduates by 2020. TCUs are essential to Indian country and rural America as they are often the only postsecondary institutions serving some of the most remote and disadvantaged communities in the country.
By providing educational opportunities to non-traditional students, American Indians and Alaska Natives, as well as non-Indian students, TCUs are helping communities create new jobs and providing Americans with the skills they need to succeed in the jobs of the future. TCUs continue to provide opportunities to those who would not otherwise be able to earn a college degree, and NTC is a good example of a growing institution where Native Americans are provided quality educational opportunities that lead to jobs, while at the same time reflecting the values of the Navajo people.
As a lifelong educator, how do you view community colleges in particular?
I have always said that community colleges are one of America’s best kept secrets. Community colleges are a representation of the American idea that if you work hard and get a good education, you can build a better life for yourself and your family. The time I have spent visiting and teaching at community colleges has allowed me to see all of the wonderful things these schools are doing for students, for employers, and for communities all across our country.
Since your doctorate dissertation focused on maximizing student retention in community colleges, do you plan to discuss ways to encourage higher education for all students?
I always encourage my students to never stop learning, whether that is in the classroom or throughout daily life. I also understand that this year will mark a milestone for NTC, where the first baccalaureate degree will be awarded. I am pleased to learn that there will be additional higher education opportunities for students at NTC.
Have you visited New Mexico or the Four Corners area before?
I have been to New Mexico, but I haven’t spent any significant amount of time there, so I’m very excited to see this beautiful area of the country.