Grads urged to 'continue on good path'
URBANA – Geronimo Caldwell was the first American Indian student at the University of Illinois to have a home away from home to hang out in for all four years of his undergraduate career.
The 22-year-old from Sims, a small community in southern Illinois just east of Mount Vernon, called the Native American House on West Nevada Street in Urbana an "awesome" place.
"They opened whenever I was a freshman and I came in with it. Me and others considered it a home base," said Caldwell, who's receiving his bachelor's degree in molecular and cellular biology today, then heading off for graduate studies at Stanford in California this fall.
On Saturday evening, Caldwell was one of five American Indian students to be honored at a congratulatory ceremony at the Native American House that featured Indian prayers, songs, and blanketing – sort of the American Indian version of an academic hood.
The others honored were master's degree recipients Charlotte Wilkinson and Jamie Singson, who earned their advanced degrees in education; Marchant Martinelli, who received a master's in public health but was unable to attend because of illness; and University High School graduate Elizabeth Reese of Urbana, who will attend Yale in the fall.
"Continue this good path you are walking on," keynote speaker Regina Tsosie of Moline told the graduates.
A teacher's aide for educably mentally handicapped middle-schoolers in Moline, Tsosie is active in American Indian groups in the Quad Cities.
"I was shocked," said Tsosie of her invitation to address the approximately 75 people gathered under a tent on the lawn outside the house in support of the graduates. She's also the mother of a woman attending the UI and is a familiar face at the Native American House.
Born in Ganado, Ariz., Tsosie is a member of the Dine (pronounced di-NUH) Nation, the preferred name for Navajo. She's a dancer and singer at many powwows and gave the crowd a sampling of her beautiful voice as she sang a Navajo song that she said spoke of ancestors and long life.
Tsosie urged the graduates to think of the acronym CARE as they continue on in life.
C is for courage and bravery; A is for attitude – "make it positive"; R is for respect and reverence for their spiritual side; and E for enthusiasm.
"Have a passion for what you do," she said.
Also honored with a ceremonial Pendleton wool blanket was Wanda Pillow, who has served as the director of the Native American House and American Indian Studies program for the last three years. She is stepping aside to return to teaching full time while the search for a national director continues. Pillow is an associate professor of educational policy studies.
"She took over under difficult circumstances," said John McKinn, assistant director of the Native American House.
"She had to make the transition from ideas to place to programs," he said, praising her for staying focused on the mission while trying to run the daily programs, teach, and juggle the demands of a family.
"I step out feeling glad I'm not going to be an administrator and happy to step back to being full-time faculty. It's been a real pleasure," she said, specifically thanking her family for tolerating the demands the job put on her.