By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News
“Welcome to our 2021 ceremony to celebrate our graduates,” said Chief Administrative Officer Rochelle Lubbers as she greeted the hundreds of family and friends who ventured to the Tulalip Resort on June 15. “We’re so excited to have you all here and our hearts are beyond full to be in the same room with our community.
“Reflecting on all our beautiful students today, I thought about all the different journeys they have taken to get here, and how each journey is unique and special. Not a single one had the same walk, but there are some commonalities that they experienced being seniors during a global pandemic. They experienced distance learning and all the challenges with technology that came with that. However, what I’m most impressed with is they exemplified perseverance. Our students overcome these challenges and pushed through in whatever way they had to in order graduate. For that, their entire Tribe is proud of them and that’s why we’re here to celebrate this wonderful accomplishment.”
The celebratory atmosphere was palpable in the Orca Ballroom, where a last minute venue change from the outdoor Amphitheatre meant the hopes and dreams aplenty from the Class of 2021 could be properly presented with a stylish graduation banquet.
A whopping seventy-four high school seniors, accompanied by their loved ones, convened to commemorate the rite of passage. There were traditional songs sang and drummed, opportunities to immortalize the occasion with a visit to the extra-large photo booth, a decadent buffet-style dinner, and plenty of motivational words offered from Tulalip’s next generation of leaders.
One emphatic message that was repeated throughout the night from graduates, parents and elders alike was a reminder to the praise worthy 18-year-olds that receiving a high school diploma is only the first major milestone on their journey to manifest their dreams into reality. For some the dream may be finding a convenient job to establish independence via a one bedroom apartment, or joining the Tribe’s next TERO vocational training center class in order to enter the construction trades. There are those newly minted adults who are far too eager to start a family of their own, and there are a few who never thought they’d graduate high school and having achieved the seemingly impossible are in search of what the next step is.
Then there are the awe-inspiring dream chasers. The type of high school grads who aren’t satisfied with just the one diploma. They want more; more education, more diplomas, and more experiences than what can be found within the boundaries of Snohomish County or the Tulalip Reservation. These individuals intend to redefine the expectations of success as it pertains to Native Americans and the education system.
Like, homegrown Tulalip tribal members Keyondra Horne, graduate of Marysville Getchell, and Desmond Valencia, graduate of Marysville Pilchuck. They were chosen as Class of 2021 student speakers and shared heartfelt words to the Ballroom crowd.
“I didn’t write an elaborate speech, instead wanted to share from the heart,” said Keyondra from the podium. “High school was really hard in the beginning. Getting used to the pace and how teachers don’t wait on individual students to catch up. Instead, they teach the lessons and it’s expected for us to learn quickly and complete our homework the same day. But after a while, I found a rhythm that worked for me and started looking forward to learning new things.
“Now that’s my inspiration moving forward, to travel around, explore the world and continue learning new things. Tulalip will always be our home. It’s okay to leave home for a while and travel new places to experience what the world has to offer,” she added. Keyondra plans to do just that as she will be attending Hult International Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts this fall.
Meanwhile, Desmond shared how he really struggled his first two years of high school because of a bad mindset. He admitted to being stubborn, not prioritizing his school work, and only doing the bare minimum because college wasn’t an option. Then everything changed during his junior year after taking up his Native Advocates Doug Salinas and Matt Remle on their offer to tour Washington State University.
“I remember meeting Native college students there. They spoke so passionately about their educational pursuits and how by improving themselves they could eventually return to their reservations and improve their tribal communities,” Desmond recalled. “They sparked something in me that day, a burning desire to be better. When I returned home from that trip I made my education the highest priority. My grades improved dramatically and by the end of the year was getting all A’s. I participated in multiple clubs at school including JROTC and DECA to bolster my high school resume. I’m proud to say that my hard work has paid off and I’ll be attending W.S.U. next year.”
Becoming leaders of the present may seem like a daunting task to most 18-year-olds who have grown accustomed to a daily consistency and a comfortable support system provided by a public K-12 education. However, for Native youth, they’ve been bucking the trend and blazing new paths to academic success for years now without even realizing it. They’ve overcome long odds that said they wouldn’t earn a high school diploma and broken down barriers that prevented previous generations from attending college.
For some students, their ability to thrive in the public school system and graduate high school with top honors meant not only proving the doubters wrong, but also proving their ancestors right. The right for future generations to be educated and have the ability to pursue a Bachelors, Masters or Doctorate Degree was something previous tribal leaders fought and sacrificed for. Their vision comes true every time a Tulalip citizen boldly ventures off to a University armed with strength of culture and a tribe’s worth of support.
Kanum Parker doesn’t reside in Tulalip, nor anywhere even close. He lives all the way in San Antonio, Texas. Half a country away and yet he’s always felt the pull of his people. In fact, he had a diamond studded necklace made featuring the Tulalip orca and his family name ‘Parker’ so that wherever he goes, his tribe does too. Kanum graduated at the top of his class at Central Catholic High School. Described by his educators as an ambitious and determined young man that demonstrates self-awareness while unselfishly giving back to his community, Kanum was awarded one of the two coveted Tulalip Senior Student of the Year scholarships.
“I’m happy beyond belief to be here today with my Tulalip family because we’re all brothers and sisters connected through culture,” declared the Texas resident and soon-to-be Baylor University undergrad after being awarded the scholarship. “My education is everything because my dream is to be a doctor. I want to become an Anesthesiologist, and that means another 8-12 years of school. It’s important for us [as Native Americans] to get educated because it’s something that can never be taken away, no matter where you go.”
The second Tulalip Senior Student of the Year scholarship winner is the instrument toting, A.P. class tutoring, Associates Degree earning, and proud Tulalip Youth Council member, Evelyn Vega-Simpson. The typical high school class load wasn’t enough for Evelyn, so she participated in Running Start and earned two full years of college credit as well as her diploma. She’s mentored classmates, fellow Tulalip youth, and other Native students in her role with Urban Native Education Alliance. Her educators say she’s provided an abundance of examples of her stellar leadership, work ethic, brilliance, compassion, patience, and exceptional commitment to improving both herself and the world around her. Evelyn has earned many accolades and scholarly achievements, but what stands out most is her humility and willingness to embrace challenges and new learning opportunities.
She’ll have plenty of challenges to embrace and opportunities to learn as she is taking her talents across the pond to pursue a career as a medical professional at the University of Nottingham, located in England.
“I feel really proud of myself because I’ve been working so hard over the past four years. Whether it was taking advanced high school classes or college courses through Running Start, my goal has always been to do better than I did last quarter,” shared Evelyn, a rare dual graduate of both Marysville Pilchuck and Everett Community College. “Even when I was much younger my dream was to travel abroad and use my education to get me places that most people wouldn’t consider possible. Now it’s coming true. My education will be taking me to the University of Nottingham. I want to thank my support system of family, friends, and teachers who motivated and supported me. Their support made it possible for me to keep challenging myself and embrace new experiences even when I felt I lacked the courage.”
The graduation banquet culminated in a ballroom’s worth of support hooting and hollering as each graduation strutted down a red carpet to a podium where education staff and school district representatives awaited. All seventy-four graduates were wrapped in a stunning wool blanket titled ‘Tribute’ from Native owned company, Eighth Generation.
Congratulations to all those Tulalip students who put in the hard work and dedication to earn their high school diploma. The hard work isn’t over now that you have graduated. This is just the beginning as you all prepare for new opportunities and unanticipated challenges waiting in life’s next chapter.