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UNM-LA students celebrate 37th graduation

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By Bennett Horne

Graduates attending the 37th Annual Graduation Convocation of the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos had waited a long time to finally walk across the stage and receive their diploma.

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So delaying the start of the ceremony a few more minutes was not a problem, especially when the graduates learned the reason behind the delay.

As visitors and participants were filing in to the ceremony held at Crossroads Bible Church on East Road, one of the graduates, Annalynn Martinez, was struck by a car in front of the church and was transported to Los Alamos Medical Center, where she was treated and released later that night.

After the short delay the ceremony began with the presentation of the colors by the Los Alamos High School Navy Junior ROTC and the singing of the National Anthem by Grace Willerton and Joy Reynolds.

Dr. Cynthia J. Rooney, the chief executive officer of UNM-LA, welcomed everyone with brief opening comments.

In her comments, Rooney said UNM-LA’s enrollment this semester was 1,151, which she said is quite an achievement “at a time when enrollment numbers are down” across the country. She also noted that over 100 students earned degrees this year at the school.

Rooney then introduced the guest speaker, Dr. Michelle Hall, as a “successful businesswoman with experience working in the oil, gas and mining industries, academia and the federal government.”

Hall, a member of the UNM-LA Advisory Board, is the co-founder of Café Scientifique, a New Mexico program in its 10th year and has served more than 10,000 teens in New Mexico.

The program brings teens together with scientists and engineers to explore the latest science discoveries and to learn about how to become a scientist, engineer or technologist.

In 2012, Hall co-founded the national Teen Science Café Network and has helped to bring teen science café programs to over 120 sites in 42 states.

Hall earned a bachelor’s degree in geological engineering from South Dakota School of Mines, and a master’s and Ph.D. in geophysics from the University of Arizona.

Thursday night she encouraged the graduates “to keep pushing forward, even though you may not know where the road goes.”

She described the road she started out on as a crowded one as she shared a small house with her large family.

“There were 13 of us,” she said. “My parents had 11 children in 18 years – eight boys and three girls – and we only had one bathroom.”

Hall said living in a large family helped her develop characteristics that helped her be successful in life.

“My family was the best gift I could ever have,” she said. “They keep giving over the years. There was always someone to teach me, to encourage me, to protect me; whatever I needed, there was always someone there to help me.”

Hall’s father, who served in the Navy during World War II, was an example to his children by taking on duties from other positions that would help him become a candidate if, and when, those positions ever opened up.

“He retired as the second civilian in command of the army payroll center, which provided the paychecks for every member of the military,” Hall said. “And he had a simple strategy for achieving this position. He would learn to do his boss’ job. By assisting his boss in everything he did, and learning that job, when his boss got promoted he knew that job and he got that job.”

She added, “He gave more than was expected and he got promoted for it.”

When she was 10 years old Hall’s father told her she would go to college, a moment she remembered the best from her childhood.

“I could not believe what he had said,” she said. “Back then girls didn’t go to college. They got married. And that wasn’t my plan.”

The excitement was then watered down by what he said next.

“Then, he said, ‘and you’re going to pay for it,’” she recalled.

So she began earning her money for college and, while in college, borrowed books from her friends until she had money to purchase the books on her own. She got a job working 30 hours a week at a McDonald’s, where she could eat meals before her shift, halfway through her shift, and after her shift if there was any food left from the day, thus allowing her to save money on meals during her years in college.

While college provided many learning experiences for Hall, one of the biggest came after she brought home “a solid D” grade from a test in a rugged calculus I class, a class that opened with 120 students before the test and only 40 after.

“I had to go home and tell my mother, which was probably one of the hardest things I ever did,” she said. “I really didn’t get to tell her because I couldn’t stop crying. She figured out what was wrong and asked me, ‘Did you bring your books home?’ And after I said yes she said, ‘Well, you better get studying because you’re going back on Monday.’ And with that, she closed the door on me quitting. She pushed me out of the nest for the final time. I had to fly. I had to meet her expectations and I had to be successful.”

Hall called it “a tremendous point in my life,” and told the crowd, “I also passed the class.”

The support from her mom was also pivotal in building a successful foundation in her life.

Another key would be the support she would later receive from her husband.

After finishing her Ph.D. she got the opportunity to work in Hawaii. But while calling it a “dream position,” she didn’t think she could accept it because of other issues in her life.

“We had a 5-year-old and my husband had a full-time professor job,” she said. “He’s traveling and we’re going to be in two different places. The dream was there in my hands but so far away in my mind.”

Her husband’s reaction turned out to be exactly the opposite of what she thought of the situation.

“He said, ‘This is amazing! You’ve got to take it! We’ve got to do it. We will be fine.’ And we were,” she said.

“That one moment was all it took for him to allow me to have my dream,” she continued, “and for the two of us to have the next 30 years of our lives together where we were always working together to help each other realize their dream.”

She advised the graduates to “listen to the people that believe in you, never give up on your dreams, and don’t ignore the little things that can add up to big accomplishments.”

Hall closed her remarks by telling those in the red caps and gowns, “The final ingredient for success is to believe, to believe in yourself and never accept setbacks as defeat.”

She added, “You’re armed with the tools to succeed.”

After the graduates received their diplomas they, along with their families, were treated to a reception in the foyer of the church building.