Two local graduates attend presidential commencement
For two area graduates, their recent graduation from community college is one they won’t soon forget.
When Tyler Jacobs (Ellsworth Class of 2013) learned President Barack Obama would be the May 8 speaker at Lakes Area Technical Institute in Watertown, South Dakota, the 20-year-old didn’t believe the news at first.
“I thought it was a joke,” he said. “It’s (Watertown, South Dakota) such a small town and a small school (LATI). He (Obama) has to have more important things to worry about.”
Apparently the president thought otherwise.
South Dakota marked the 50th state Obama visited as president. He explained the reason in the commencement address to the 601 LATI graduates.
Among them were Jacobs and his girlfriend and fellow LATI student Tracy DeBeer, a 2013 graduate of Adrian High School.
“Compared to other community colleges, the graduation rate at Lake Area is more than three times the national average,” Obama said.
At 98 percent, LATI’s graduation rate is one of the criteria that earned the community college the Aspen Prize from the Aspen Institute of Washington, D.C. LATI earned its first excellence award in 2011.
“It’s basically the Oscars for great community colleges,” Obama said. “Only two community colleges in the country made the top 10 every year the prize has been awarded – and one of them is Lake Area Tech.”
The community college was established in 1965.
For Jacobs and DeBeer the choice of LATI was a matter of time and economics.
“(The ranch management program) was the shortest in the area and it was less expensive,” Jacobs said.
Obama said he wants to make attending a two-year college like LATI free to high school graduates, a proposal he included in his speech.
Learning a hands-on trade from dedicated instructors is the main reason students succeed.
“Those professors are good at checking up on you if you’re not in class,” Jacobs said.
While Jacobs said he never received a phone call, he did receive his professors’ cell phone numbers during the first day of class.
Jacobs suspects it was faculty who told the president’s staff about the gatherings at the gravel pit and “Thirsty Thursdays.” Both topics and other local flair were included in the president’s speech.
“As long as you keep your student ID, you can still get your Sunday night student discount at B-Dubs,” Obama said. “I had my staff check on that.”
Humor was something Jacobs didn’t expect from the president of the United States.
“He was funnier than expected,” Jacobs said.
Not so funny was the hours-long wait graduating students and audience members endured before the president’s arrival.
He was flying in from Oregon from a morning speaking engagement. Expected to be at LATI at 4:30 Friday afternoon, Obama didn’t begin his speech until an hour later.
“They had to fly around the snow storm,” Jacobs heard staff explain.
Jacobs’ mom, Barb Krapf of Kenneth, arrived at LATI and was seated three hours before the speech began. She likened the security experience to that at an airport.
“We were told not to bring anything extra. They searched bags and swiped phones,” Krapf said of the secret service staff.
The speech, however, made the wait worthwhile, she said.
Each of the LATI students was invited to write a story about themselves. Neither Jacobs nor DeBeer, a physical therapy assistant major, submitted their stories. Four students and one faculty member’s personal stories were included in the speech.
“He was very well spoken and the speech was well-written,” DeBeer said. “But he really didn’t inspire me.”
Jacobs thought the president’s message was more about the students than directed to the students.
“You guys are great; you guys inspire me,” he said.
Despite the wait and extra security precautions including dogs, Jacobs said he and DeBeer would always remember their college graduation event.
“It’s cool,” he said. “No matter what you think politically. (It’s) pretty amazing that the president of the United States came to a community college.”