Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren inspired students and employees alike by sharing stories about his own educational journey during a recent visit to The University of New Mexico-Gallup.

UNM-Gallup Chancellor Sabrina Ezzell led Nygren and his staff on a tour of the campus accompanied by UNM-Gallup Dean of Instruction John Zimmerman and Student Affairs Director Jayme McMahon. Along the way, Ezzell shared information with Nygren about the branch campus and its programs.

"It was an honor to have President Nygren visit our campus,” Ezzell said. “He was inspiring, and it was great to see his commitment to education."

Nygren enjoyed the scenic landscape on the tour, including a view from the Nursing Career Center that looks east toward Navajo Nation land bordering Gallup. Later, he posed for photos and shared laughs with students and staff in Gurley Hall and the Student Services & Technology Center, exchanging greetings in both the Navajo and Zuni languages.

Nygren then held an hourlong campus forum with students and employees in the Student Services and Technology Center, during which he shared personal stories and answered questions from the audience.

He talked about his own educational journey, including some of the uncertainties and challenges he faced.

“I had no relatives, nobody down there, but all I knew was I wanted to make my mom, my grandma and all these people proud. I said, ‘You know, I might not know what’s going on, but let me just try it.’” Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren

After graduating from Red Mesa High School in 2006, he enrolled at Arizona State University in Phoenix because he wanted to stay close to home.

“I had no relatives, nobody down there, but all I knew was I wanted to make my mom, my grandma and all these people proud,” he said. “I said, ‘You know, I might not know what’s going on, but let me just try it.’”

During his first two years of school, he tried studying aerospace engineering and civil engineering, but he struggled to find his footing.

In his third year, Nygren wasn’t sure if college was right for him. He told himself that it might be his last year if things didn’t work out. But that’s when he found his passion at the Del E. Webb School of Construction at ASU.

While going to school, he would travel to Farmington on the weekends just so he could do construction work and make a bit of extra money for gas and for taking his grandmother out to eat.

“That’s one of my advice to you guys,” Nygren told students during the forum. “As you’re starting your studies — or some of you might be trying to figure out where you want to go, or some of you have found out where you want to be — always be in a place where you have a passion. … Do what brings you joy and happiness to your heart.”

After another three years in school, Nygren graduated with a Bachelor of Science in construction management in 2012. He then earned a Master of Business Administration from ASU in 2017 and a Doctor of Education in organizational change and leadership from the University of Southern California in 2021.

“Just go, go, go, go”
Nygren also encouraged students to never quit on themselves. He said he could have quit after his classes got tough, but instead he kept trying because he felt like there was a purpose and something that was meant to be.

“Never lose path of why you’re here,” he said. “There’s a reason why you’re at this campus. There’s a reason why you decided to take a certain class; because you wanted to explore, and you really wanted to figure out if this was the way you want it to go. So that’s an advice that I want to share. Just being able to never quit. Just go, go, go, go.”

He encouraged students to focus on being good role models for their families and their communities, but also not to overextend themselves. He encouraged them to focus on themselves and strengthen themselves first to help their loved ones later.

“You’re at this wonderful institution at UNM, and I just want you guys to know you are on the right path,” Nygren said. “Don’t ever forget that you’re on the right path. You’re going to make that difference, whatever it may be. It might be in nursing, it might be in business, it might be in the arts, or it might be in construction technology. Whatever it may be, just pursue it because you love doing that profession, you love every day.”

Nygren then gave students the opportunity to introduce themselves and share their goals. Several of the students expressed their desires to help their communities.

“Obviously, we have a wonderful campus here, and it wouldn’t be possible and we wouldn’t be doing the great work that we’re doing without all the folks who work here. Thank you, everybody, for all your hard work." – UNM Gallup Chancellor Sabrina Ezzell

For example, UNM-Gallup students Deanndrea Antonio and Lathan Hood each said they’re pursuing associate degrees in human services with a concentration in family and child studies because they want to become social workers.

Both Antonio and Hood said they want to work for the Navajo Nation because of the need for more social workers, services and resources.

“A lot of people need help with basic needs like housing, electricity and water,” Hood said. “I want to break that barrier so that I can help my people on the reservation, so we can have better well-being and we can improve our nation and become stronger in today’s society.”

“Ké really works”
Nygren also answered students’ questions, which ranged from the profound to the light-hearted.

Student Cole Frame asked how Nygren feels, as a father, about changes in education and the rising statistics of students diagnosed with ADHD and autism.

Student Nicole Johnson asked Nygren if he ever makes mistakes and gets overwhelmed while overthinking those mistakes.

And student Shayquan Morgan asked Nygren if he uses the term “Navajo taco” or “Indian taco” when referring to the popular frybread dish (he calls it a Navajo taco, of course).

At the end of the forum, Nygren stressed the importance of having a good attitude.

“My mom never went to school,” he said. “My grandma never went to college. My grandma went up to second grade. My mom went up to ninth grade. She had me when she was 15 years old. She passed away a couple years ago from alcoholism. It’s always these challenges. So what always got me through … is your attitude. How you appreciate, how you talk to people. Ké really works. … You treat people with respect wherever you go because those opportunities will continue to open.”

Ezzell thanked the president for his visit and recognized faculty and staff in the audience, including members of the UNM-Gallup Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee.

“Obviously, we have a wonderful campus here, and it wouldn’t be possible and we wouldn’t be doing the great work that we’re doing without all the folks who work here,” Ezzell said. “Thank you, everybody, for all your hard work. And I can’t tell President Nygren how much I appreciate his visit today. ... You’re very inspiring, we appreciate you for being here today, and I just can’t thank you enough.”

Top image: UNM-G Chancellor Sabrina Ezzell leads Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren on a tour of The University of New Mexico-Gallup campus on Friday, April 19, 2024.