Walking the Beauty Way

Walking the Beauty Way

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Commencement of the Navajo Technical College

May 19, 2012

Good morning everyone, and thank you for having me here today. I can't tell you how honored I am to have this opportunity. I have walked in beauty with the Navajo people in this land. It is an opportunity I will never forget.

Visiting reservations is among the most rewarding and uplifting things that I have done since joining the Obama administration. From Lame Deer, Montana to Mission, South Dakota to here in New Mexico, I am always struck by the dignity, strength, and pride of our Native-American peoples.

It comes from the land that you know and love--and the culture and language that shaped you and that you work so hard to preserve.

I felt it last night as we gathered over dinner. And I feel it this morning as we gather to celebrate the educational success of our young people.

I see it in the strong and determined mothers and grandmothers whose quiet power and authority has been at the center of Navajo society since the beginning of time – holding families and clans together through good times and struggle.

I see it in the courage and warmth of the Navajo men who built this culture – defended its land – and honored its traditions of healing and respect for natural beauty.

I hear it in your language, your conversation, and your generous sense of humor.

Above all, I see it in the love and caring you display for each other – for your children – and for your culture. To be Navajo is to be at one with the surrounding world – at peace with yourself – and in harmony with nature.

The qualities of character that define the Navajo people have been earned over centuries of work, survival, and adaptation. They have been passed down through the generations.

The wisdom of your mothers and fathers comes from the land, the language, and the culture, and it has been tested over time. And now it has been given to you to share with others.

So the question is – what will you do with it? What will you do with your Navajo knowledge? How can you use it to make the world better for those who will follow you?

Every graduate faces this question: What can I offer, besides my labor? This is where you need to remember who you are and where you come from. This is where your culture can serve you and protect you as you head out into the world.

The rest of the world can learn a lot from a culture that respects its surroundings, protects its animals and water sources, and lives in balance with nature.

The fact is that a world driven only by consumption will one day destroy itself. It's already beginning to happen as the polar ice caps melt, ocean fisheries decline, and lakes and oceans succumb to toxic waste and pollution.

We need to remember the values of shared responsibility and respect for others, including animals, trees and nature, and the freedom to live the way we choose. Your strong sense of values comes from your parents and your community. Combine that with your great education and you can do anything!

Over 140 years ago, the legendary Navajo Chief Manuelito affirmed the importance of education when he said, "My grandchildren, education is the ladder."

Note the concept Chief Manuelito used: A ladder – which you can climb and get to a place you have never been before. A ladder – with a sturdy base that supports you as you reach higher. A ladder – that grows taller with each generation. Education is your ladder--and you have now reached a higher rung.

You are doing this for yourselves and for your families. Your families' pride in your hard-won academic accomplishments that led to this moment is tremendous—especially so for those of you who are the first in your families to graduate from college.

Today, you receive your college degrees. And now you must put these hard-earned degrees to good use.

Your first obligation is to yourself. You earned this degree. You paid for it – with some help from your family, and maybe a little help from the federal government. Now you must find a good job that feeds your curiosity and passion.

In this tough economy, that's not as easy as it should be – but you have skills. Some of you earned degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.

In fact, enrollment here at NTC in STEM fields is up from 56 students five years ago to 427 last year. That's a remarkable jump – and that's a smart strategic shift in priorities--so many of the jobs of the future are going to require expertise in the STEM areas.

Companies like Boeing and Lockheed need more STEM workers. Government agencies like NASA and the EPA need you. Construction and health care companies can use your skills.

Some of you earned degrees in media and technology. You can find work in animation, web design, film, and radio. The world is increasingly visual – and with these degrees – you can not only find but create new opportunities.

The hard truth, however, is that there are not a lot of jobs here on the reservation. With unemployment on the reservation at nearly 50 percent, the reservation alone cannot provide enough opportunities for all of you and your newly-developed skills.

Some of you will have to leave and try your luck in cities like Albuquerque, Flagstaff, and Phoenix. Some of you may even come to Washington and help us figure out how to solve some of the nation's toughest problems.

We all know it won't be the first time that Navajo tribal members served their country with distinction. I couldn't come here today without paying tribute to the legendary code talkers of World War II. Their unbreakable code was a big factor in America's victory in the Pacific.

If any code talkers are here today, I want to extend my deepest gratitude on behalf of the American people and the Obama administration. Thanks to your service and courage, America defeated its enemies, protected its lands, and advanced democracy around the world. Today, those enemies are now our allies.

To all of our graduates, no matter where you go, please remember that you carry with you the spirit, strength, and wisdom of the Navajo people. Whatever success you may find is due in part to the values and the education you received here on the reservation.

And that carries with it responsibilities – to give something back to your community – to make it easier for those who come behind you. You must always find time to come home and help out those who do not yet have your advantages of education.

This is the biggest Indian reservation in the country. And with over 300,000 members, the Navajo have the largest Native-American population of any tribe.

Members of your tribe have distinguished themselves in so many fields. Dr. Fred Begay was a nuclear physicist. Jacob Ellsbury played pro baseball. Cory Witherill is a professional race car driver; Jay Tavare is a noted actor. You have well-known painters, poets, dancers, educators, and musicians in your tribe.

They owe their success both to the Navajo values they grew up with and the skills they acquired in life – just as you have done.

I also want to thank the extraordinary leadership of the Navajo Technical College – President Elmer Guy, Academic Dean Tom Davis, and the Board of Trustees. Under their direction, NTC has become one of the top community colleges in the country—an accomplishment that should give all of you great pride. Nothing positive, nothing transformational happens without great leaders—and I want to thank all of you for your remarkable commitment.

Many other institutions serving mostly minority populations fail to graduate anywhere near half of the students, but NTC graduates 85 to 95 percent of its students. That's fantastic--and it only happened because you students worked hard and took responsibility for your education. Today, NTC is expanding its cutting-edge work– adding new four-year degree programs and targeting growing industries like health care and technology.

The future here is inspiring, and the vision is as clear as it is ambitious. The school's slogan pretty much says it all: Education is about "endless possibility." With an education there are no boundaries. It's the best and most lasting form of freedom. You can lose many things in life, but no one can ever take away your education.

You have much to be proud of and much to look forward to so I just want to leave you with a few pieces of advice.

The first is simply to find your passion. If you are doing something you love, it will never be hard to get up in the morning and go to work.

I've always had two passions: basketball and education. And in the 25 years since I graduated from college, those are the only jobs I've ever had. And while I didn't fulfill my dream of playing in the NBA, I did play pro basketball in Australia for four years – and brought back a lot of great memories, along with a beautiful Australian woman who became my wife. Today we have two wonderful kids – so basketball did a lot for me.

Basketball also taught me teamwork, discipline, the importance of hard work, and the need to sacrifice for the good of the team.

It taught me something else that is so important to success in life – and that is persistence. Life is about meeting challenges and overcoming them.

It's about stumbling, falling down sometimes, but always, always getting back up again. I promise you there will be times when you will want to give up – when the pressures of the world or the job start to overwhelm you.

That's when you need to stiffen up that Navajo spine and remember the burdens that your ancestors faced and overcame. Remember the long walk of 1864 that forced 9,000 Navajo men, women, and children to march hundreds of miles. They rebuilt their lives--and preserved their culture for you.

Starting out in a new field is always hard, but please don't give up. Collectively, you represent our greatest hope.

The Navajo nation needs you to succeed wherever you go so that one day you can return and give something back to this community – start something new – create new businesses and opportunities for the next generation.

Please, look around you – you were literally raised by uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, friends, as well as parents. The entire community brought you to this point in your life where you are ready to compete in a global economy. They helped you climb the rungs of the ladder of which Chief Manuelito spoke.

And once you have proven yourself in the world, you can always find ways to make the climb up that ladder a little easier for the next generation of Navajo. In graduating today, you are already important role models for them.

My final thought is – don't ever forget who you are and where you come from. You are proud citizens of two great nations– the world's strongest democracy and America's largest tribe.

To be American is to believe in freedom, equality, and opportunity. America may not have always lived up to those ideals – but they always define us in the end.

From the nation's founding to the great movements in history for religious rights, worker's rights, civil rights, and women's rights – our best qualities come from these core ideas at the heart of the American Dream.

And for you -- to be Navajo is to have a rich culture and history. Remember always the Navajo weavers and silversmiths who create beautiful Navajo textiles and jewelry; remember always the Navajo code talkers, whose courage and brilliance helped win a world war. Remember the special ceremonies and the unique language that shaped your world view. Remember your great teachers, who have devoted their lives to your future success.

And above all, remember to live and to walk in the beauty way – in balance and in harmony with respect for others, for yourselves, and for the world around you.

We are all so proud of you--and so hopeful about what you will accomplish in the years ahead.

I came to inspire you, and instead, you inspire me.

Congratulations, I wish you the best of luck!