Native of Puerto Rico, who didn't know English when she first came to S.D., among DWU graduates

Jenniffer Varona graduates with the Dakota Wesleyan University class of 2007 at 2 p.m. today at the Corn Palace, the first person from her family to finish college.

Jenniffer Varona graduates with the Dakota Wesleyan University class of 2007 at 2 p.m. today at the Corn Palace, the first person from her family to finish college.

Not bad for a girl from San Juan, Puerto Rico, who just a few years ago couldn't speak a word of English.

Varona, 23, will be one of 207 DWU students to receive a diploma.

"It's one of the largest classes we've had," said Vice President for University Relations Lori Essig, who said graduating classes at DWU typically run 130 to 150 students. "It also will be the first time we'll have graduates from all three of our nursing programs."

There will be 38 nurses from the Mitchell program, nine from Huron and 15 from Sioux Falls.


The graduates are made up of 16 master of arts degrees, 128 bachelor of arts degrees and 63 associate of arts degrees -- a number that includes the nursing students. 

Jack Billion, chairman of the DWU Board of Trustees and a candidate for governor in 2006, will present the commencement address, "A World of Tomorrow, Almost Now and Not Quite Yet."

Essig said each graduating class has "a handful of students with interesting personal stories."

Varona definitely is one.

Friday, she drove from Des Moines, Iowa, where she works for Wells Fargo as a fraud specialist in a new bilingual program. She was accompanied by her proud mother, who flew in for the event. Technically, Varona finished at DWU in December, but graduation is something special.

Varona, recruited by the now-defunct Si Tanka University in Huron, came to South Dakota in 2002 with several friends to "play some soccer."

"We never thought we'd get a scholarship to go to college, but they offered that, and I said, 'Yeah, sure!' " she said in a telephone interview earlier this week.

For a city girl from the buzzing tropical city of San Juan, Huron was a shock.


"It was quite an impact -- a small town that was really windy and cold. ... It was pretty rough for me," she said, using a favorite expression.

But if it was a rough adjustment, Huron was at least safe. When she was young, Varona spent time with relatives in the Bronx borough of New York City. Noted for its high crime areas, the Bronx also "was pretty rough," she said. San Juan had its own dangers.

Crime and soccer both have figured big in Varona's life. Originally one of four siblings, she now has only one brother, 38, still living in San Juan. One brother died when she was 12 and a third was shot to death in San Juan when she was 17.

The shooting death, she said, was her motivation for taking a major in criminal justice. She minored in behavioral science and hopes for a future in crime scene investigation. 

"I can't be a cop. I'm 5-2 and I only weigh 115," she said.

College isn't easy -- even more so for a student who speaks no English.

"It was pretty rough for me going to college without speaking English and giving presentations in front of 32 people," she said.

Soccer, a game she has played since her youth, helped.


She worked hard gathering core curriculum credits at Si Tanka, but always in the background were the persistent rumors about the small university closing, "but it never did."

In March 2005, the rumors came true. Instructors began quitting and "we knew it was serious -- and scary."

Si Tanka's soccer coaches contacted DWU and interceded for their girls. Dakota Wesleyan never before had a soccer program, but with Huron closing, an entire team was looking for a place to continue its education.

"It was a successful (athletic) program looking for a home," said Essig.

Within weeks, Varona became an expatriate of sorts for a second time.

"It was another new place to go to, but DWU was bigger and had more students and Mitchell was also larger. I really liked it," she said.

While learning English was a formidable barrier, Varona said, "I wasn't scared. I picked it up pretty fast and my teammates were helpful, too."

Varona was the team's top defender during its first year and earned second team all-conference her junior year. She was named to the NAIA Region III second team her senior year. She also worked as a student coach.

On top of that, she earned her degree, thousands of miles from home.

"I really did pretty good in college, actually," she said, no false modesty apparent.

"I've learned so much," said Varona. "I've met people from around the world."


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