LAWRENCE, Kan. - Threatening Kansas skies failed to dampen spirits of the more than 1,000 family members and friends who packed the bleachers of Haskell Indian Nations University Coffin Sports Complex to watch as 139 students receive their degrees.
Tha Tribe provided traditional ceremonial music and honor songs for graduates and the university band played "Pomp and Circumstance" as graduates from more than 140 American Indian nations gathered to celebrate cultural diversity and completion of another step in their education.
Graduate Marzha Fitzler, named Student of the Year, delivered the commencement address. Fitzler joked earlier with friends that it seemed appropriate that she would end her career at Haskell on the basketball court. She played for four years with the university girls basketball team.
"Haskell has been a fascinating experience," Fitzler said. "Haskell is a thriving community of tribes from all over the United States. More than 150 tribes are represented here and they are all unique. If we didn't believe in Haskell, we wouldn't be here today."
She also told students that Haskell symbolized a unity among American Indian people. "As distinct and varied as we may be, we all have Haskell in common. That is a powerful connection for us ... ."
That belief in Haskell was discussed throughout the crowd as families and alumni watched the newest graduates receive diplomas. There were 104 associate degrees in arts and sciences conferred and 35 bachelor's degrees were awarded in fields as diverse as education, business and natural resources.
"Today these young people carry the songs of our ancestors, the prayers of our ancestors," newly elected Regents President Judy DeHose said. "Today these people are leaving this university with great honor."
Ira Salvini, recognized as the 2001 Outstanding Alumnus, admonished students to remember everything about their years at Haskell. "What is important is to freeze this moment here in your memory ... the names of your teachers, the names of the buildings, the Haskell grounds where you've spent many semesters. It is important to freeze in your memory the hard times and the good times, because you have to experience those to complete your educational process."
With those words in mind, the HINU band struck up the school song and as alumni and new graduates stood singing, there appeared to be few dry eyes in the house. Hugs and photo sessions followed commencement as classmates parted, heading for distant areas of the country with their families to use their new degrees to make changes in Indian country.
Many of those with associate degrees said they plan on going into four-year degree programs at either Haskell or the University of Kansas. Several of those with four-year degrees said they already have jobs or graduate programs lined up.
"I'm staying in Lawrence," Diane Reyner said. "I am going into the Indigenous Nations Studies Program at the University of Kansas." Reyner, who graduated with a bachelor's in American Indian Studies, said she believes the program at KU will be an exciting way to continue her education.
Although some students and alumni stayed for the annual graduation pow wow, many simply packed up and left. It was time to go home again.