UNM graduation: Dramatic, significant stories

By Diane J. Schmidt
Special to the Times

CHINLE, Feb. 16,2012

ALBUQUERQUE, May 24, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Diane Schmidt)

University of New Mexico graduate Lyle Christopher Begay with his sister Keyannah, 11.

O utside the University of New Mexico Pit on May 12, around the parking lot, after the graduation ceremony, is the real show.

It's the moment after and the moment before, a celebration which the graduate thinks is all about him or her but which is really about the entire enterprise - the family effort that put the students into their moment in the spotlight.

It is one of the few real moments in life when we know why we have gathered together communally.

In some of the photos of Navajo families caught in the rapid stream exiting the stadium, there is a poignancy revealed by the number of family members who traveled hundreds of miles to be here.

There is a high drama of struggle and sacrifice. All of the stories are important, dramatic, and significant. Here are a few.

Surviving a brain tumor

They were the last Navajo family spotted leaving the Pit as UNM graduation exercises ended.

Giggles echoed off the walls as the upbeat group posed in different combinations for the family photo shoot, everyone getting in the act.

The reporter went up to the tall beaming graduate to get his name and information. As he dutifully answered, making sure to include and carefully spell his lengthy middle name, suddenly his aunt appeared at the elbow, saying, "Now, did he tell you he survived an emergency to be here?"

Everyone crowded in to listen to the story as Lyle Christopher Begay, 27, Red Running Into Water, born for Towering House, told of surviving a brain tumor and emergency surgery to graduate with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering.

In 2008, Begay was in his last semester of studies when he began to get headaches.

"They became progressively worse and then they became migraines," he said. "I would come home and just go lie down in a dark room and cover my eyes."

He toughed it out until mid-terms.

"As the strain of mid-terms came, I couldn't function. I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't do anything," he said.

Finally he went in for a CT scan at UNM Hospital and then through Indian Health Service went to San Juan Regional Hospital for an MRI, where they discovered he had a benign brain tumor called a hemangioblastoma, a hereditary condition more typically found in middle-aged white people.

His neurosurgeon at San Juan, Dr. Maurin, performed the operation. Recovery meant resting for a year.

Now Begay excitedly talks about his plans to pursue a master's in water resources and envisions a career where he can help the Navajo Nation tackle the engineering challenges and technical side of managing their water.

His mother is Bertie Holyan and his father is Gary Begay of Tohatchi.

Getting a degree at 56

Lou Benally was sticking her tongue out for the cameras for "just one more" as her husband proudly documented the newly minted graduate.

At 56, she just earned her bachelor's degree in university studies, psychology, and sociology.

Her clans are Edge Water, born for Mexican People. She is from Kirtland, N.M.

Benally explained that after her father died, "It just felt that I was lost, just purposeless, and I remembered that my dad, that he really pushed education."

Many of her children had gotten degrees - the Benallys have 10 children and 17 grandchildren.

She said her husband, Norman Benally, re-impressed the idea of her of going back to school, and her kids were enthusiastic about it.

Benally said she took most of her undergraduate classes at the Farmington UNM branch. And, she added with a grin, she just heard she has been accepted into graduate school at UNM in public administration.

Natives = 7 percent of graduates

Three hundred ten Native students graduated this year from the University of New Mexico.

The American Indian Student Services office at UNM reported that for the entire 2011-12 year, they had 245 undergraduates, 52 graduates, 9 professional degrees and 4 Ph.Ds.

The nine professional degree graduates included a Navajo M.D. in the School of Medicine, another graduate in physical therapy, and seven law school graduates.

There were four pharmacy graduates among the graduate students, and of the four Ph.D. graduates, three were in the College of Education and one in arts and sciences.

The office said that the number of graduating Native American students has remained steady over the last few years.

The UNM enrollment report counts 1,483 Native American students enrolled this year in the university out of a total of 27,305 - a 5.43 percent overall presence.

The registrar's office said that graduation numbers, which have not yet been finalized since graduation just took place, indicate that approximately 3,200 students graduated from UNM this spring.

Of the 310 Native students who graduated, 87 graduated in the fall, so 223, or almost 7 percent of the 2012 spring graduating class, were Native students.