Sights and Sounds: Dougherty Family College 2024 Commencement

There is a theme among the University of St. Thomas Dougherty Family College graduating Class of 2024. It’s that it takes a village. Whether it is family, friends or educators, there is always someone there to provide support and encouragement.

Eh Klay
Dougherty Family College 2024 Commencement speaker Eh Klay ’24 AA.

“As you walk that journey, remember that you are not alone. DFC will always be a part of you,” said commencement speaker Eh Klay ’24 AA. “Think back to those moments when you felt like you couldn't go on, but someone was there for you, offering a helping hand or a shoulder to lean on. Those moments of connection, of love – they’re what DFC is all about.”

Klay was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. She and her family moved to the United States in 2016, and she said it wasn’t easy. “I didn’t speak English well, and I was scared people wouldn’t understand me because of my accent. That all changed when I arrived at DFC. Through DFC, I learned a valuable lesson: It’s OK to be different. It’s OK to have an accent, to struggle with a new language. And most importantly, I learned that it’s OK to ask for help.”

Klay will be attending Metropolitan State University next year as she continues to pursue her bachelor’s degree in law enforcement and criminal justice.

“Eh Klay is a remarkable scholar who has an inspiring life story,” Dean Buffy Smith said. “She is a courageous and compassionate leader who stretches beyond her comfort zone. Eh Klay represents the resilient spirit of Dougherty Family College.”

More than 90% of the Dougherty Family College scholars are either from immigrant families or otherwise Asian, Black, Indigenous or Hispanic households. Klay acknowledged that during her speech to her graduating peers.

“Many of us are immigrants and first college students. Some of us come from communities that have been forgotten,” she said. “At times, it has felt like we have had to work twice as hard as everyone else. But that doesn’t mean we are any less smart or capable. I want you all to know that it’s OK to be yourself, no matter what. Embrace who you are and don’t be afraid to share your story. And remember, it’s OK to ask for help along the way. Your journey is important. It makes you who you are.”

Cielo Garcia Villordo grew up in Puebla, Mexico, and graduated from Spring Lake Park High School, which serves the northern Twin Cities suburbs of Blaine, Fridley and Spring Lake Park.  She said she enjoyed her two years at DFC and would recommend it to others because of how the scholars are divided into cohorts and each gets a mentor, there is free counseling offered, and “every professor and faculty member cares about us,” she said.

Dean Smith asked the scholars to stand and acknowledge their support system. “I want you to give all of your supporters, your loved ones, your mentors, your friends, community partners, faculty, staff and administration a big round of applause ... because we never get where we are by ourselves.” The room erupted in applause as the scholars shouted a hearty “thank you” in unison.

“When you need help with any little thing whether it is about school or something going on in your personal life, there is always going to be someone there to offer support and help,” Villordo said. “Everyone here cares about their students and their student’s success; if someone is doing badly in a class, professors or tutors will help, offer support, and help work around the issue. Not once did I feel alone or helpless during my time at DFC because everyone here acknowledges and recognizes us. As a new incoming freshman, going into college and a new environment in general can be scary, but everyone here makes sure you are comfortable and offers all the support they can.”

Villordo plans to continue her bachelor’s degree at St. Thomas in computer science.

King Laramie ’24 AA, who plans to continue for a bachelor’s degree at St. Thomas in digital media arts and journalism, said they chose to attend DFC because “I knew it would allow me to be alongside people who either look like me or come from a similar background. Everyone here looks out for one another like a real family. It is encouraging and I believe it allows students to realize their strengths they never thought they had.”

St. Thomas President Rob Vischer, in his remarks, said the DFC scholars are remarkable and resilient.

“I want you to remember always above anything else: You are loved, your life has purpose, your work has meaning, and you have been uniquely gifted to make irreplaceable contributions to our world,” Vischer said.

“All of the faculty members at the DFC are amazing and truly want to help and see you succeed, which helps to create an inclusive environment,” said Wyatt Jellison ’24 AA. “On top of being super supportive, there is plenty of academic support that is offered on the DFC campus to make sure you are successful in your academics.”

Jellison plans to continue on for his bachelor’s degree at St. Thomas in environmental science on the biology track.

Daesia Johnson, who will continue her education at the University of Minnesota as a psychology major, gathered on John P. Monahan Plaza after the ceremony with her mom, her aunt, and other family and friends. “I’m very proud of the young lady she is becoming,” her mother Tanya Johnson said.

Deja Johnson and her family
Daesia Johnson ’24 AA and her family at the 2024 Dougherty Family College commencement ceremony. (Brandon Woller ’17 / University of St. Thomas)

Alexis Rodriguez-Mata ’24 AA, who was born in Las Vegas and moved to Inver Grove Heights at the age of 11, where he graduated from Simley Senior High, said, “My family is a major part of the reason why I am thriving in education.” But the support of his girlfriend, Natasha Ovalle, who is also graduating from Dougherty Family College, is one of the reasons he is graduating from DFC. “I learned about DFC through my girlfriend. She introduced me to it and I loved it,” he added. “The lovely staff and professors are here to help you succeed in and out of school.”

In her remarks to the friends and family attending the DFC commencement, Dean Smith acknowledged all the family members, friends, faculty and administrators who helped the scholars through their journey. She cupped her fingers to make a heart shape with her hands as she referred to the DFC family as “Ohana” – the Hawaiian word for family.

Family is also important to one DFC scholar, Amber Mueller, whose graduation cap was decorated with a photo of her daughter Sadie and the words "I did it for her.” Mueller dressed her six-year-old in a cap and gown to celebrate occasion.

At the end of her remarks, Smith told the crowd to take a good look at the faces of the graduates crossing the stage and remember their names, as they are the leaders of tomorrow.

“They are going to do amazing things in our world,” she said. “They're going to lead with their intellect and their talent, but most importantly they are going to transform our world with goodness and kindness as they pursue truth and justice.”