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New Mexico School for the Arts

Nearly 30 seniors complete studies at 2-year-old school

Robert Nott | The New Mexican

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2012

As a dancer, Malia Byrne is accustomed to expressing herself with her body. So it makes some sense that she was nervous about relying on her voice to get her point across. As co-valedictorian of the inaugural graduating class of the New Mexico School for the Arts, she had to give a commencement address, which is what made her so anxious. Yet she spoke quite eloquently for many of the school’s students when she said before the ceremony, “I feel like I’m part of something bigger than anything any of us could have expected; something bigger than we are able to define.” Byrne (who did just fine delivering her speech) was one of 27 seniors graduating Saturday morning during a one-hour event held in the James A. Little Theater on the New Mexico School for the Deaf campus. The students had studied one of four art forms: Visual arts, dance, theater and music.

School founder Catherine Oppenheimer (who will receive a Governor’s Award for Major Contributor to the Arts in September) took the stage to recount a brief history of events leading up to the state charter school’s opening in August 2010. She praised Sen. Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces, for her help in making the school a reality by pushing for state funding to get it started, and presented the senator with the school’s Arts Samaritan Award. Oppenheimer proudly noted that the seniors collectively netted more than $600,000 in scholarships on their road to higher education. Twenty percent of the graduating class, she said, will be the first in their families to attend college. Her hope, she said, is that many of them will stay in the state or return to it to become “our cultural entrepreneurs.”

Among those potential entrepreneurs is senior Jovita Enriquez, who first introduced herself before the commencement with, “I am a voice major,” before correcting herself with, “I was a voice major.” She said she’s been at the school two years — long enough to “see how it has grown, and how I have grown, too. It’s been exciting to be here to watch it happen.” She plans to get her basic educational credits completed at Santa Fe Community College before deciding on her future beyond that.

Co-valedictorian Samuel Thompson, a music student, noted in his commencement remarks that the New Mexico School for the Arts has given the graduates a chance to continue their dreams. The school, he said, “is about building an art-loving family that can encourage and support each other.” Beforehand, he said, “So many things are ahead, and yet there are so many people you leave behind.” He and at least five of his student peers are heading to The University of New Mexico next year, he said.

The commencement’s keynote speaker was actress Marsha Mason, who stepped in for Shirley MacLaine, who was supposed to give the speech but had to go to California on last-minute business. Reading from MacLaine’s prepared remarks, Mason said, “You are moving on to a new re-creation of you … you will find your power and your happiness in your creativity.” Mason herself added a few comments, urging the students to adhere to the so-called Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” in terms of treating others with kindness.

In a novel touch, underclassmen took the stage to robe the seniors at the start of the event. After Principal Cindy Montoya conferred the degrees and introduced the graduating class as a whole, the students exited the theater and gathered on the nearby Cartwright Hall Lawn, where they threw their caps in the air.

A proud Montoya said, “Once we get that first graduation class [out], we know we will remain a school in the state of New Mexico for a long time. We have a strong belief in our mission and the capacity to fulfill it.”

The school will have nearly 200 students enrolled next semester, including 54 new freshmen.

Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.