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The newly added Student Center at the award-winning Lake Area Technical Institute is part of a major expansion at the Watertown, S.D., school in recent years. A new agriculture center has also been added. President Obama will speak at the school's graduation at 4 p.m. Friday. Submitted photo.

Obama to make South Dakota last of 50 states visited in presidency

WATERTOWN, S.D.--Jenifer Steffes said her father "isn't a huge fan" of President Obama, but she said he wouldn't think of missing her graduation from Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown where the president will give the commencement address Friday.

After all, it's not too often a student and her or his family get to see and hear a sitting president speak at graduation -- especially at a two-year technical college. Plus, the family will be in elite company as the event is closed to the public as only the 720 LATI spring graduates and their four guests will be allowed in the ceremony in the 4,200-seat Watertown Civic Arena.

The 20-year-old Steffes said the award-winning school has never limited attendance at graduation before, but had to with Obama coming.

It's believed to be the first time a president has spoken at a college graduation in the state.

"Imagine how meaningful obtaining your college degree becomes when the president of the United States is your commencement speaker?" LATI president Mike Cartney said. "I cannot even begin to explain the feeling I had when the White House called with this news."

The South Dakota visit will also help Obama reach a milestone -- visiting all 50 states during his presidency. He recently visited Utah -- No. 49 on his list and another deep-red state that matches South Dakota in never having voted for the two-term president.

Nonetheless, the presidential trip has certainly stirred excitement in the town of 22,000 residents and throughout the state with Gov. Dennis Daugaard and the state's congressional delegation -- all Republicans -- also expected to attend.

Steffes, whose family lives on nearby Lake Hendricks that straddles the Minnesota-South Dakota state line, said she's "really excited" about having the president address her graduation.

"It's definitely something I'll remember forever," she said.

"I really don't pay attention to politics. But I always thought it was cool that he's the first black president," said the dental assistant graduate who plans to move to Sioux Falls to do her clinical studies.

High-achieving school

LuAnn Strait, director of student services, said almost everyone at the 2,000-student institute -- recognized as one of the best two-year colleges in the U.S. -- is "very excited" about the visit.

The school, a top 10 finalist in the prestigious Aspen Institute's national community college excellence award program for the past three times running, is known for having one of the best graduation rates in the country at 73 percent and a job placement rate of 98 percent.

Lake Area Technical Institute, which received $100,000 each time it has won the honor, is the only school ever in the Aspen program to be named a top 10 finalist three straight times.

To keep its top rating in the future, Strait said the school has a goal of raising its graduation rate even higher by 2020. Already it's way above the national average of 40 percent at the 1,125 community colleges in the U.S.

While Obama has been urging Congress to make tuition free at all of the nation's community college, Strait doesn't know if he will address that issue.

She said there sure hasn't been any talk in Watertown or at any of the other three South Dakota technical institutes about a free ride. However, a new Build Dakota Scholarship program, with a generous donation from philanthropist T. Denny Sanford and a matching state contribution, will allow about 60 students each year at the four institutes to get a free ride through the new program meant to fill jobs in the state where certain businesses are clamoring for employees.

Love for the school

Alex Boekelheide, who earned his degree in production agriculture and is returning to the family farm at Northville, near Aberdeen, to work with his father, said he "absolutely loved" his two years at the school and can see why it's a national award winner.

"It's hands-on and the school also gives you a lot of one-on-one time with the teachers," the student said. "It was never a problem getting up and wanting to go to class."

Although he said he doesn't have a lot of knowledge about politics, he called the visit of Obama to his gradation "a pretty cool deal."

One of Boekelheide's teachers and the director of the school's agriculture department, Jim Clendenin, said it's certainly a highlight of his 33 years working at the college.

He said usually about 70 to 75 percent of his department's graduates attend the ceremony, but this year he thinks about 90 percent will join in.

"I've been through a lot of things here before," Clendenin said, "but this one is really special. What a privilege. What an honor to have the president not only recognize our present students but also former students who have gone on to be very successful people. For the school to be recognized on the national level is really a privilege."

Awaiting details

Meanwhile, school officials were still waiting for final details on the president's visit late this past week.

Strait said she has no idea what the president will talk about and also doesn't know if Air Force One will fly directly into the city in far eastern South Dakota or into Sioux Falls, about 90 miles to the south down Interstate 29.

"It would be nice to know because some people might want to be out to watch his motorcade," Strait said.

Clendenin said he has heard all kinds of talk, including him flying in on a helicopter from Sioux Falls to landing Air Force One at the Watertown airport. He said the airport is capable of handling the 747.