Adams State commencement speaker calls grads to the table

(05-16-2016)

Commencement speakers typically laud graduates' accomplishments and encourage them to become lifelong learners, to engage in community service, to use their talents to improve the world. On May 14, Adams State alumnus Placido Gomez brought an urgency to those messages with a dose of reality - and a call for the graduates to "Take Your Seat at the Table" and be part of the solution to the world's problems. Adams State President Beverlee J. McClure said Gomez has carried the values of his alma mater throughout his career, demonstrating his commitment to the education of minority students.

Adams State awarded 362 degrees at its spring commencement ceremony, including 271 bachelor's degrees and 91 associate's degrees. Seventy-eight of those graduates completed their degrees through Extended Studies distance education programs. Of those, 21 were incarcerated students enrolled in the Prison College program. A law professor and criminal defense attorney, Gomez recognized this statistic during his comments and said, "I've never been so proud to be a graduate of Adams State. You're doing something that no other school in the nation is doing."

Elizabeth Streeter (right), who completed her B.S. in Business Administration - Accounting, gave the message on behalf of the graduating class. McClure noted Streeter's great-grandfather lobbied the Colorado legislature alongside Billy Adams to found Adams State. A third-generation Adams State grad, Streeter's grandfather was the late Dr. Marv Motz, emeritus professor of psychology and two-time interim president of Adams State.

"He taught me Grizzly pride every day," Streeter said. "I always dreamed of attending Adams State. Green was my favorite color early on. It's been everything I hoped it would be."

Streeter told her fellow graduates, "Great things can happen in small places. You do matter, and you can make a difference. We must be aware of our actions and our power." She concluded by eferencing a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, "In a gentle way you can shake the world." "Now it is our turn to take what we learned from these wonderful people . . . let's shake the world."

Gomez's address echoed that thought. "My thesis is a simple one, very similar to Miss Streeter's. We live in a world with some serious problems. . . Things are not getting any easier. We need you and your perspective and ideas and skills at the table where decisions are being made," He earned his bachelor's in elementary education and master's in guidance and counseling from Adams State, in 1975 and '76, respectively. He went on to earn a Juris Doctor degree from University of New Mexico Law School and a Master of Laws degree from Yale Law School. Gomez shared four anecdotes concerning issues related to Native America, world hunger, America's criminal justice system, and Central American immigration to the U.S.

He told of a harsh realization he gained when he accompanied his law students to observe criminal court one day. "One of the rookie law students poked me and nodded towards the inmates. 'Professor Gomez,' she whispered, kind of half laughing, but more as a challenge, 'Is this the courtroom for Blacks and Mexicans?' . . . There were a dozen or so prisoners, in their orange jumpsuits, in handcuffs. They were all poor, all people of color.

"The worst thing was, I was oblivious; it's not that I didn't see that all the prisoners were Black or Brown - it's that it was the norm for me, and it had not registered. That was the student's challenge to me: 'You're a lawyer. This happened on your watch,'" Gomez recalled.

"I know that the United States has 2.2 million people in jail, far more than any other country. And 7 million on probation," he said, A recent report by the Department of Justice indicated that 75% of the inmates in federal prisons for drug related crimes are Black or Brown. Seventy-five percent." He then cited author Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow, which states more Blacks are under the control of the criminal justice system today than there were slaves in 1860.

What's more, Gomez said, the number of women in jail has increased 700% since 1980, and Native American girls are eight times more likely to be imprisoned than whites.

Nevertheless, Gomez said he was optimistic. "The faculty of Adams State University will present these young men and women before us, present them to the world as ready, and well-equipped to address those issues." He concluded, "Class of 2016: It's your time; your watch has begun. We need you; we need you to take your seats at the table; we need you to take those seats now."

Adams State President Beverlee J. McClure (left) presents Stacey Faith Shepherdson her diploma. Stacey began her coursework in Singapore through Adams State Extended Studies and completed her final year on campus.

Bowen Soden (center), of Rocky Ford, Colo., represents the fourth generation of his family to earn a degree from Adams State University. The tradition began with his great-grandfather, Hartley Owsley, who graduated in 1936. His son, Chuck Owsley (far left), graduated in 1968 and his children, Kathy Soden '89, Bowen's mother; and Jeff Owsley '86, attended Adams State, and their children are following in those footsteps. Bowen earned a B.A. in sociology with an emphasis in criminology and a minor in history. He's set to teach fifth grade at Jefferson Intermediate School in his hometown, while working to join the Colorado State Patrol. His brother, Sawyer, will begin Adams State in the fall, joining cousins Laura and John Owsley, who are current students.

Taylor Crowther (center at left), of Sanford, Colo., collected two degrees at Adams State's spring commencement May 14: a B.S. in both accounting and finance, along with a minor in taxation. He accomplished this in just four years and earned an 80 percent scholarship to attend the Denver University Graduate Tax program in the fall. He then plans to earn a dual master's degree in law and business management at New York University. Ultimately, he hopes to return to the classroom as a professor. He is the son of Adams State alumni Mack '86 and Luella '86, '90 Crowther.

Vice president for Academic Affairs Dr. Frank Novotny congratulates his daughter Emily Novotny (right) on earning her Associate of Science degree. She attended Adams State classes while still in high school; she will  graduate from Alamosa High School May 28.

By Julie Waechter