TÓHAJIILEE, N.M. – When Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren’s schedule suddenly became free, rather than head back to the office, he decided to visit with students to talk to them about their future.
President Nygren went to the To’Hajiilee Community School in To’Hajiilee, New Mexico, and to the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, where he spoke to high school students at both schools. He shared his personal story. After asking the Navajo students what their clans were, he learned what wanted to do when they graduate from high school.
The visit began with a small group of 15 students. At first the students were nervous to have the Navajo Nation President enter their all-purpose room, pick up a mic and begin to talk. It wasn’t long before they began engaging with the president because he told them he understood how they felt and told them so.
“I was the oldest from my high school to graduate from college,” he said. “I wanted to be an aerospace engineer but at first I had trouble with the math, so it didn’t work out.”
Like many of the students, he didn’t have running water or electricity growing up which made everyday living harder for him and his late mother Charlotte Slim Toney. His uncles taught him how to build things and so he always loved construction.
That led him to pursue a major in construction management and technology. He discovered his true passion, and that took him all over the country in a job he once could only dream of.
His message to students reflected his realization that education will take you to the future of your dreams and your dreams will tell you what you love to do.
“Do what brings joy to your heart,” he told them. “What makes you want to get up every single day? Go after that. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t because you can, and only you can make it happen.”
One student told him she wanted to be a veterinarian, and how another student said they wanted to be a welder. One said she was going to college for a criminal justice degree, another to be a dental hygienist.
He told the students that he really appreciated their focus, they’re desire and their bravery to pursue a goal.
“Don’t be afraid of mistakes,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to fail.”
The president said one key thing the students should know is that they will learn throughout their entire lives.
“Don’t let not knowing something make you afraid,” he said. “There will always be something you don’t know and there’s always something more, something new, to learn.”
He said when he was their age, excellent advice he was given was something simple that builds strong relationships and makes the people around you feel good.
“As you move along in life, say, ‘Thank you, Ahéhee’,” he said. “In Navajo, we say, ‘Thank you.’ That kind of attitude opens doors for you.”
At NACA, which has students from Navajo and many Pueblo communities, the president told 19 students that whatever tribe they were from, “we’re all in this together as Native people.”
“We’re always looking for strong people to think forward,” he said. “I enjoy the confidence in this room.”
He told the juniors that two years from now when they graduate to stay connected to their classmates. They will be your strength during the tough times in years to come, he said.
“So, save phone numbers, save email addresses, develop close relationships,” he said. “You will know your friends throughout your life if you do. You’re going to make your people proud.”
Students at NACA told him they wanted to be an anesthesiologist, a video game designer, a chemist, a writer.
They asked how he went from a construction engineering degree to become Navajo Nation president. He told them he thought about it for a long time.
“I’d roam the hallways of my school in Red Mesa, looking up at the pictures of all the Navajo chairman and presidents,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘If I have a good heart and feel like helping my people, I think they’d give me a chance.’”
Visiting a Navajo language class, he told students to seek out elders and the knowledge they hold.
“They would love for you to see them,” he said. “Elders can really remember down to the details. That’s what’s so unique about them. They lived in a time when they could actually capture those moments in memory.
“Embrace being Indian,” he said. “That’s how we’ll exist one-hundred years from now, two-hundred years from now, love being Zuni, Laguna, Navajo.”