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GARY — Jesus Nazareth Fajardo emigrated to America 10 years ago speaking "not one drop of English."

The Michoacán, Mexico, native moved with his family to the Chicago area when Fajardo was just 12 to seek work and "the American dream" and spent the next two years teaching himself English.

Donning two cords and a stole over a black gown Thursday, he stood before 571 of his peers at the Genesis Convention Center to give Indiana University Northwest's student commencement address.

"Although we may come from different places and speak in different languages, it is our differences that make us special, that make us strong," Nazareth Fajardo said, addressing the class of 2019.

IUN awarded more than 800 degrees Thursday afternoon in its 53rd annual commencement. The ceremony was a diverse celebration of IU culture with University President Michael McRobbie and IUN Chancellor William J. Lowe also sharing remarks just months shy of IU's bicentennial year.

Lowe used his address to celebrate the achievements of three spring graduates — Paulina Ugalde, who after moving to Indiana from Querétaro, Mexico, less than three years ago, received her IUN degree Thursday; Brandon Wilson, who graduated Thursday with his Bachelor of Science in business a decade after receiving his high school diploma at Calumet New Tech High School; and Praniece Nicholson, who, at 30 years old, returned to school to complete her Bachelor of Arts in psychology with a perfect 4.0 GPA.

Just more than 70% of students graduating Thursday were women and 40% were first-generation college students. Half of this year's graduating class is over the age of 25. 

"Your diploma signifies one of life's significant accomplishments," Lowe said to the graduates. "It is more than a piece of paper. Your diploma is a true, honest reflection of your character, your dedication and your hard work."

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McRobbie drew inspiration from four notable Hoosier alumni who have died in recent weeks — David Hamburg, former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and Gary-native George Taliaferro — and noted this year's milestone as the 10th anniversary of IU profressor Elinor Ostrom becoming the first and only woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

"The qualities and virtues that allowed these five great figures from IU's history to succeed are the very virtues you have learned during your time at IU Northwest," McRobbie told the graduating class. "In the years to come, I fully expect that it will be your achievements that will also bring along pride to Indiana University."

Nazareth Fajardo, who graduated Thursday with his bachelor's degree in nursing, plans to pursue medical school with hopes of one day becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon and opening a clinic back in Michoacán.

In his native language, Spanish, Nazareth Fajardo paused during his commencement address to thank his family. He emphasized the importance of those who supported him throughout his studies.

"A la familia, gracias," Fajardo said. "Si no fuera por el amor que nos han dado y los valores que nos enseñaron desde niños, el resulto de hoy no fuera el mismo."

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.