EL PASO -- Friends Nuuese Punimata and Ja-Boy Leomiti at 22 years of age accomplished something they'll always remember.
"I'm very happy -- this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Leomiti said as he joined Punimata and 1,550 other students Saturday at the University of Texas at El Paso Fall Commencement at the Don Haskins Center.
Both friends moved from California to El Paso two years ago to play football for UTEP -- the beginning of a journey that ended Saturday when both received bachelor's degrees in multidisciplinary studies. Both plan to enter graduate school.
"I met a lot of friends. The whole faculty, staff, everybody at UTEP have been really helpful to me," Punimata said.
Leomiti said, "I love El Paso, the people, the weather."
Camera flashes illuminated smiles as family members and friends took photos and placed flower and candy leis around the necks of the graduates.
"I feel very proud of our son, very proud," said Punimata's mother, Sharon Punimata. "He did that through our support but all the hard work was his."
Family members flew in from American Samoa, California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington to see the two graduate.
Punimata said he is excited to start graduate school in leadership and education in January.
In the future, he plans to go back to American Samoa, an island in the South Pacific, where he was born and raised. "I want to work for my government being a high-school teacher and football coach." Leomiti hopes he can help in the UTEP athletic program while he pursues a master's degree in criminal justice.
"I want to work for my government being a high-school teacher and football coach."
Leomiti hopes he can help in the UTEP athletic program while he pursues a master's degree in criminal justice.