Commencement Speaker Spotlight: Natasha Grad

Natasha Grad

Natasha Grad, 29, is graduating from Dakota County Technical College this spring with a Digital Marketing Specialist A.A.S., Professional Photography A.A.S., and a  Small Business Entrepreneurship certificate. Natasha made the most of her time at DCTC. She worked as the Student Senate campus liaison and served as president of both Rotaract Club and the Business Professionals of America (BPA) Minnesota state chapter.

Student Senate

Natasha served as the college’s Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) chapter social media specialist, an Alumni Advisory Board student representative, an active leader in the Wellness Club, and a student ambassador. She plans on following her entrepreneurial drive by owning her own photography business along with businesses in freelance marketing and pageant coaching. She is eager to continue her education by earning a bachelor’s degree in the near future.

When asked what she considers the best reasons to be an entrepreneur owning and managing your own businesses, Natasha said, “The best reasons are that you control your future destiny, and you have the opportunity to invest your valuable time in pursuing your passions. I genuinely believe that the key factors in determining your future outcomes are within your control.”

Progress Through Inclusion: Disabilities in Action Panel

She added that a person’s level of success is directly correlated to the dedication and effort they invest in themselves.

“I always say that the best person to bet on is yourself,” she said. “When you lay the groundwork for your future, you are not reliant on others for your success. There is no guarantee in life and in business, but I can guarantee myself.”

Additionally, Natasha believes that pursuing your passions will significantly enhance your overall quality of life.

“Given that a substantial portion of life is spent working, I prioritize investing my time in activities that ignite my passions, allowing me to make a meaningful impact that I can personally take pride in,” she said.

Student speaker at this year’s commencement ceremony

Natasha was selected to be the student speaker at the 2024 DCTC Commencement Ceremony Friday evening, May 10, at Aldrich Arena in Maplewood, Minnesota.

“I am deeply grateful to have been chosen as this year’s commencement speaker,” Natasha said. “Delivering a speech of such significance is beyond anything I could have imagined or believed possible! This moment will forever remain a cherished memory throughout my lifetime.”

The topic of Natasha’s speech is centered around resilience. As she crafted the outline for her commencement speech, she began by generating a single word that represented her journey at DCTC.

“Resilience has emerged as the true guiding force that pushed me forward during my time here, and continues to persist in driving me towards completing my education,” she said. “I firmly believe that setbacks are simply opportunities in disguise, and that what we do with those opportunities can make a complete difference depending on how we view them.”

More about Natasha…

Originally from Eagan, Minnesota, Natasha graduated from the School of Environmental Studies, Class of 2013. She has been actively involved within the pageant community for more than15 years. Her most recent title is National Miss for American Royal Beauties 2022–2023.

She is committed to her platform of helping to educate and end the stigma against severe mental illness. She devotes significant time reaching out to both peers and adolescents to share her story and help raise awareness.

Natasha also made an impact in the fashion industry by walking in the first-ever, completely plus-size fashion show for New York Fashion Week. She has continued participating in runway at New York Fashion Week for four years.

Competitive bowling

Natasha has been bowling competitive bowling for the majority of her life. She started bowling as a very young child when her parents placed her in her first after school activity, which was a bumpers league.

“As I got older, it grew into a competitive passion, and I soon joined the high school bowling team,” she said. “I competed not only in co-ed varsity, but also on the women’s team and in traveling bowling throughout my adolescence. Now as an adult, I actively participate in leagues throughout the season. You can find me at many different tournaments from single-day events on the weekends, to women’s USBC regional competitions within the Twin Cities, and even USBC state competitions for both women’s and co-ed.”

Airplane graveyard

Spontaneous road trips are another big part of Natasha’s life. “With my photography background, impulsive road trips are my jam!” she said. “I love traveling in general and always find myself taking the back road when headed towards a destination. I have come across such cool and unique things traveling for just the day within Minnesota, as well as those spontaneous road trips across the country.”

Natasha related that not having a hard-set itinerary and destination can set you up for the best experiences.

“One of the coolest things I have come across during one of my spontaneous trips was an abandoned airplane graveyard in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota,” she reported. “Finding opportunities like that can lead to some of the best unexpected photography!”

Natasha and her dad

Natasha grew up in an active motorcycle family. As a young child, she would frequently go on motorcycle rides with her dad. And as she got older, she and her dad would go on trips together.

“Some of my most fondest memories are when my dad and I would take the motorcycle following up the north shore leading into Canada,” she said. “I fell in love with riding motorcycles and always said growing up that I was going to ride my own one day alongside my dad. My passion grew substantially as I got older and has now morphed into not only an interest in motorcycles, but also performance cars as well.”

Natasha now owns two motorcycles, a Honda CBR 300R and a super-fun Honda Grom. She also owns a project car, a 6-speed 2004 Nissan 350Z.

An only child, Natasha grew up in Eagan. Her dad is a produce manager with 40+ years of service in the grocery industry. He is also the union representative for his job as well as an active member of the executive board of his union.

Natasha and her mom

“You can always find him outside in the summer,” Natasha said. “He has a passion for architecture and is often renovating and building something at home or helping a neighbor out.”

Natasha shared that her mom has always been her biggest cheerleader, attending every event she has participated in.

“My mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) before I was born,” Natasha said. “In 2011, my family learned that she was actually misdiagnosed with MS for more 20 years, and that she actually has a disease called fibromyalgia. My mother has a strong passion for helping others and has continued to pursue that passion through volunteer work.”

Natasha’s parents instilled in her at an early age the importance of volunteering and giving back to the community.

“As a child, I created my own little ‘club’ with elementary school friends called Helping Hands, where we participated in fundraising opportunities around Eagan for various charities,” she said. “One of those charities was the MS Foundation. My dad and I participated in the Bike MS: MS 150 event for many years. We would fundraise money for the charity cycling event. The MS 150 is a two-day, 150-mile bike ride where you travel from Duluth back down to the Twin Cities. We would average about 75 miles in a single day.”

Natasha and Tanner

An honorary member of Natasha’s family is her best friend, Tanner Hussein.

“We have been friends for 23 years now, and he is considered to be a brother in my family,” Natasha said. “We first met at Woodland Elementary, where we shared a first grade classroom together. Our friendship blossomed over the years as we spent countless summers together jumping on the trampoline, attending drive-in movies, and taking our bicycles all around town.

“Tanner is a huge support in my life, and is always right beside me cheering on every activity and adventure I may do in life. I can always count on him cheering me on and being at every event, whether it’s a pageant, bowling competition, or a lifelong accomplishment. We look forward to our lifelong friendship and the memories we will make in the future.”

Natasha family, college, and life gallery

Natasha Grad Q & A

Progress Through Inclusion: Disabilities in Action Panel

What inspired you to major in digital marketing at DCTC?

Pursuing a degree in Digital Marketing was not part of the original plan. I began my education at DCTC by pursuing a major in Professional Photography in the fall of 2019. When we experienced a global pandemic, I made a strategic shift and began pursuing a certificate in Small Business Entrepreneurship along with my original major as classes began to be held online.

Adjusting to the change of moving to online classes, I continued to push on and complete what I could at the current time with what could be accomplished while the world was temporarily restricted. Running out of classes to fill my schedule, I was determined not to lose my momentum and began scrambling for complementary courses that would align with my professional aspirations and provide long-term benefits to my career.

Upon completing the additional coursework and finishing my Professional Photography major, my advisor revealed a surprising revelation: I had unknowingly fulfilled half of the requirements for an associates in Digital Marketing. At the time, I did not know of digital marketing and what that entailed.

Growing up, I had never believed that I would go to college and earn a degree, so finding out that I was close to earning my SECOND one I just had to complete it. I took the opportunity of extending my education at DCTC to get really involved in Student Life.

As I did that, through networking I was able to get a job working remotely for a B2B digital marketing company and experience what the digital marketing field is like. I ended up really enjoying what I was doing for work and decided to finish the Digital Marketing associates. It was honestly a complete accident where an unexpected opportunity arrived and I went for it! I am now really thankful I took the risk and found a career path I really enjoy, as I would not have found it otherwise.

What did you find most intriguing about your professional photography coursework?


Having the creative freedom to deep dive into the different variants of photography throughout my program was extremely special. Exploring these variants, some I had never heard of before, gave me the chance to really find my niche and fall in love with genres of photography I would have never thought to try myself.

What I found most intriguing was exploring how to invoke different emotions and experiences for the viewer. Throughout my time working with Lisa Cline, who is the professor for the Professional Photography A.A.S program, I played around with manipulating people’s perspective and viewpoint of the world. I explored generating stories and evoking emotion by creating carefully crafted scenes that gave a different perspective.

One example of this was where I captured the side runoff of a waterfall and made it appear as its own individual entity, when in reality it is just a trickle of the actual waterfall. I really believe that it is our job as a photographer to help people see the world in a different viewpoint that they would not have originally seen themselves. You can find beauty in even the smallest of things.

What type of photography interests you the most and why?

I have a tie between Studio portrait work and macro photography.

Studio portrait work—because I believe it is the best way to have complete creative freedom when it comes to photography. Working in a studio, you are able to manipulate the light and create any type of environment or feeling that you want to portray. You are able to generate a temporary world, and tell a story through your artwork.

I feel studio work is the most creative outlet, and you can really generate some captivating images, allowing you to continuously push the creative boundary and produce some breathtaking artwork.

Macro photography

Macro photography—because it forces you to look at the world from a different perspective. It highlights beautiful areas within the world that you would not ever think existed. When I began experimenting with macro photography, it really challenged me to think outside of the box. It is really another way to once again, manipulate people’s perspective and viewpoint of the world.

One of my favorite assignments Lisa Cline had us complete was in a macro photography class, where we were instructed to find the beauty in something that would conventionally be considered ugly. It was a really fun challenge where I chose to capture the beauty of a rusted old milk tin. The final product is still some of my favorite macro work and something I am very proud of.

Three words that describe you as a college student:

What did you enjoy most about your role as Rotaract Club president?

Rotaract Club volunteering on Thanksgiving

What I enjoyed most was being able to participate and lead volunteer opportunities that helped to make a difference within the local community. My team and I directed our focus on others. We were able to prepare and provide meals for individuals experiencing food insecurities during the Thanksgiving holiday through Loaves and Fishes.

We also were able to gather and collect more than 400 technical books for a local nonprofit rehabilitation center, providing opportunities for people who are looking for a second chance and wanting to improve their lives.

The actions we took throughout the year made actual differences in people’s lives, and being able to do that for someone is immensely rewarding and fulfilling. Through benefiting our community and individuals directly, we can contribute to a more compassionate, supportive, and interconnected society.

What advice would you give students thinking about becoming more involved in student clubs and organizations?

The advice I would give would be to take the risk of getting out of your comfort zone and get involved on campus. Through participating in the different clubs and organizations at DCTC, you can open the door to so many opportunities that you could have never imagined existed. The valuable skills you gain will benefit your future endeavors and career aspirations. Moreover, the connections you forge and the positive impact you make in your community are incredibly meaningful.

What do you like best about attending DCTC?

What I love best about attending DCTC is the strong sense of community that permeates the campus. From the admissions team to the faculty and staff, everyone is dedicated to supporting students in achieving their academic goals. The school goes above and beyond to ensure students are well-prepared for their chosen career paths.

DCTC fosters a welcoming environment that is conducive to learning, which is invaluable in higher education. The level of support I’ve received here has exceeded my expectations. The entire campus community takes pride in celebrating students’ achievements and offers vocal encouragement. Additionally, they excel at helping students realize their full potential. I am deeply grateful for the personal growth and future prospects that DCTC has provided for me.

What person has influenced your life the most and why?

My grandmother has been the person who has influenced my life the most. Since childhood, she has been a significant role model and someone I have admired and aspired to emulate as I grew older. She set a high standard for me to strive for as I transitioned into adulthood. My grandmother recognized potential in me that I did not see in myself.

Reflecting back on it now, it’s incredible to consider how different my life would be if she hadn’t encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone years ago and participate in pageants. At the time, I never imagined such a path was possible for a young tomboy like myself, but her actions have played a crucial role in shaping the confident and accomplished woman I am today.

If you could make one thing happen on Earth right now, what would it be?

If there’s one thing I wish could happen on Earth right now, it would be to undo the damage inflicted on our glaciers and address the environmental challenges confronting us today.

One word that best describes your experience at DCTC:


Natasha Grad 12 Answers

  1. Favorite sport or physical activity: Bowling and swimming!
  2. Place you would most like to visit: Glacier National Park
  3. Most exciting thing you’ve ever done: Getting scuba certified
  4. Three things you would do if you won a $1 billion lottery: 1) Travel the world 2) Invest in myself 3) Donate to those in need
  5. Best book or movie you’ve read or seen lately: The book American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
  6. Time period (past or future) you would explore if you could time travel: Either the Victorian era, or the Renaissance era
  7. One thing you most want to accomplish in your life: To end the stigma against severe mental illness along with being an inspiration to those struggling with mental health
  8. Your national bird if you were your own country: Oriental dwarf kingfisher
  9. Dream occupation: To be a motivational speaker
  10. Person you would most like to meet: Mary, Queen of Scots
  11. Skill you would most like to learn and master: Bowl a perfect 300 game!
  12. Most important issue or problem facing humankind: Environmental crisis we face today
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