Story and photo
by ERIK MEDINA
On May 23, Pima Community College will host its annual graduation ceremony at the Tucson Convention Center Arena.
At each graduation, one student is chosen to speak to the student body at the beginning of the ceremony, this student is known as the the commencement speaker.
This year, that student is Nicole Werner.
Werner is originally from Philadelphia, but moved to Arizona at a young age. Although she grew up in Philadelphia, she considers Arizona her home.
At 16, Werner was on her own, so she decided to move to Arizona because that’s where her father resided.
“I had heard my dad was living out here, so I came and stayed with him and his girlfriend, which was kind of weird,” Werner said. “After a while, I just kind of worked my way South.”
Once Werner was in Arizona, she went to about eight high schools, but she didn’t graduate.
It wasn’t until she was in her early 30s that she got her GED. After obtaining her GED, Werner enrolled at Pima.
Werner has also been a single mother for the majority of her children’s lives, according to Werner’s daughter, Asia Gonzales.
“She’s always done like anything and everything that she could to like provide for us to make sure that we always had everything we needed,” Gonzales said. “When she decided to go back to the school for the first time, we were kind of like hesitant just because we had always had her stay at home with us and be there for us for everything.”
When Werner came to Pima, she said that she was in a spot where she didn’t know who she was or what she wanted to do. At first, Werner hoped to attend Pima and meet people that were like her. Werner, unfortunately didn’t get that, and that is what she said that she is most grateful for.
“That was probably one of the first and best gifts Pima gave me,” Werner said. “I found so many people that I could connect with that weren’t like me. That made me feel at ease.”
Pima offered Werner small classrooms and professors with whom she could connect. The best person Werner met at Pima was an adviser named Michelle Savage.
“I don’t think I would have stayed on campus pass my first semester if it hadn’t been for her,” Werner said. “She really made me feel like I was part of the Pima family and kept me pulled in to the whole experience.”
Like many students, Werner has her own challenges to face while pursuing her education. For example, Werner suffers from anxiety. She said when she started at Pima, she once dropped a class because somebody sat in her seat on the second day and it was too awkward to choose another seat.
Through the years, Werner has been working on her struggles with anxiety. One method she finds helpful is doing things she doesn’t usually tend to do and puts herself up to the task.
“I would say you’ve got to trust your instinct,” she said. “If it’s time to get therapy, it’s time to get therapy. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of advocating for yourself. If you need to go to ADR to get services, don’t ever let anybody make you feel like you’re less than or that you’re stupid or any of those things. A lot of us have a traumatic past and all sorts of reasons and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help.”
At the beginning of the semester, Werner saw the position to be commencement speaker open up. She thought it would be a good idea to try out for it, and so she applied. She submitted a 100-word document and gave two references. The next thing she knew, she got an email back that said to have a speech ready and go to an interview.
“I thought to myself, ‘I can’t do that’,” Werner said. “So I put it off and I put it off, and two days before the interview, I wrote a little speech and I went in and I read it and they called me a day-and-a-half later and they said, ‘You got it.’ ”
Since then, Werner has been practicing for that day and has realized that she has a message to share and that people might want to hear it.
“I hope that I can do the best job I can,” Werner said. “To represent us as a whole and giving the honor that’s due to the hard work and struggle that every single person there has put in, and I just hope that I’m able to bring that through for everybody.”
Werner’s ambition to better herself has allowed her to achieve things that she wouldn’t have thought that she could do when she started this journey.
After Pima, Werner will attend the University of Arizona in the fall. She has also been accepted into the Honors College.
“She’s worked her ass off to get where she is right now and she’s just accomplished so much with her life,” Gonzales said. “It’s just really cool to see her from where he used to be growing up and stuff and always struggling to what a great point she is at right now.”