Haskell graduates ‘live it up’ at commencement ceremony

Haskell Indian Nations University student Tyler Levier, the American Indian College Fund Student of the Year at Haskell, addresses his classmates Friday morning during Haskell's 2013 spring commencement in Coffin Sports Complex.

When they practiced their commencement ceremony earlier this week, Tyler Levier recalled Friday morning, the 2013 graduates of Haskell Indian Nations University were told to move quickly across the stage, to keep things moving.

But as Levier spoke from that stage Friday, he sent a different message, with apologies to the Haskell administration.

“Walk slow,” Levier told his classmates, to loud applause. “They’re here for you. Today is your day. Live it up.”

Levier and his classmates celebrated their graduation from Haskell on Friday morning, watched by family and well-wishers who packed the stands and spilled onto the floor inside Haskell’s Coffin Sports Complex, where the commencement ceremony was moved because of the week’s wet weather. Haskell this year awarded 100 bachelor’s degrees and 99 associate degrees, some of which were earned in the fall 2012 semester.

Haskell’s students come from federally recognized American Indian tribes throughout the country. They pay a few hundred dollars in student fees each year but no tuition to attend the school.

The graduates were well within their rights Friday to take some time to soak in the feeling, Levier said after the ceremony.

“They’ve earned it,” Levier said. “The places we come from — college degrees aren’t taken for granted.”

Levier, a 28-year-old member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation from Topeka, said he certainly didn’t take his achievement lightly. He’s the first member of his family to earn a college degree. And before he came to Haskell four years ago, he worked while his wife went through school, racking up 375,000 miles over three years as an interstate truck driver.

“This has been a decade in the making,” Levier said.

He graduated magna cum laude on Friday with a Bachelor of Science in business administration and he spoke to his class because he was chosen as the American Indian College Fund’s Student of the Year at Haskell. (Elizabeth Schmitt, who graduated with a perfect grade-point average, also would have addressed the crowd, having been chosen by Haskell as its student of the year, but she missed the ceremony because of the death of her mother.)

Levier, who hopes now to earn a Master of Business Administration, said he wants to forge a career that helps him give back to Native Americans.

Ernie Stevens, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, encouraged all the Haskell graduates to do just that as the ceremony’s guest speaker. Stevens, a Haskell alumnus, said Native American tribes around the country have come a long way, but many of them still face obstacles. Young people like the Haskell grads can help, he said.

“I encourage all of you to take that step: Get into business and hire people,” Stevens said. Levier said he had no doubt he and his classmates could help make that happen.

After the ceremony, as graduates and their families spilled out the doors, Levier looked for his mother, Stephanie. He had avoided making eye contact with her in the crowd when he made his speech — he knew she was crying, and he knew he would be, too, if he saw her.

After weaving through the crowd for a few minutes, exchanging 20 or so handshakes and hugs, he spotted her. He grabbed her by the shoulders, kissed her on the face and said, “Hold it together.”

Asked how she felt, Stephanie pointed to a tear in her eye and asked, “Does this tell you?”