A time to celebrate students’ success

A graduating student at Milwaukee Area Technical College expresses his joy. (Photo: MATC)

Community colleges across the country are celebrating their graduates this spring. For many students, getting to graduation didn’t come easy, which makes the pomp and circumstance of the commencement ceremony all the sweeter.

Daniela Chavez-Hernandez, a Northern Essex Community College early childhood education major, was the student speaker for the Massachusetts college’s May 20 graduation ceremony.

Born in Mexico, Chavez-Herandez came to the United States when she was 16 years old, speaking no English. She attended an Arizona high school where she honed her English writing and reading skills.

Chavez-Herandez is the mother of a two-year old daughter and works full-time as a pre-school teacher at a child care center that helps low-income families. On campus, she’s been a member of Phi Theta Kappa and treasurer of the Early Childhood Education Club, among other things. She plans to transfer to Salem State University where she will pursue a bachelor’s and a master’s in social work.

“I see a need in the community for social workers and I want to continue working with children and families to improve their quality of life through community services and counseling,” Chavez-Herandez said.

Overcoming the odds

At Florida’s Miami Dade College (MDC), student Enrique Sepulveda graduated with a major in political science. It was an important milestone for him. Before coming to MDC two years ago, Sepulveda “had been engaged in a battle with what he calls the ‘negative influences,’ that surrounded his upbringing,” according to an MDC News story.  At MDC, Sepulveda triumphed over homelessness, the effects of parental substance abuse and the gang violence in the projects where he grew up.

In a video, Sepulveda said that “what I am from taught me to turn my fear into adrenaline that would keep me moving forward.” He was elected vice president of the Student Government Association at the Wolfson Campus. He also was awarded a scholarship to study in Indonesia.

Norwalk Community College (NCC) in Connecticut selected two students to speak at its May 18 ceremony. Loretta Horton is a Navy veteran and returned to college after a career as a dental hygienist. She’s now preparing for a career helping women and single mothers, like herself. Sarah Rebello is a native of Brazil who enrolled at NCC to learn English. Sarah, an active volunteer, was awarded an NCC Foundation scholarship and has applied to Smith College, Mount Holyoke, Columbia and Fordham. Her dream is to become a diplomat.

Coming home

Two Davidson County Community College (DCCC) alumni served as speakers during the May 13 ceremony. Their accomplishments showed graduates just how far they can go.

Davidson County Community College

Dennis Shane Miller, a 2012 DCCC graduate, took advantage of the opportunities he had while attending the North Carolina community college. Miller traveled to Washington, D.C., with DCCC trustees to their national conference and spent time advocating on behalf of the college and community colleges nationwide. The experience led him to continue his education. He eventually acquired his master of arts in diplomacy and foreign policy with a focus on nuclear policy from City University of London. Miller has served with Sen. Kay Hagan, AmeriCorps, UNICEF and more. He received the President’s Award for Volunteer Service, the Congressional Award, and multiple volunteer awards.

Ricsy Sanchez, a native of Honduras, came to the United States when she was 11. She spoke no English, but she overcame many barriers to become a successful college student at DCCC. She served as secretary of the Student Government Association, president of the Hispanic Culture Club and was an active member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. She earned an associate of science degree in 2013 and an associate of general education degree 2014.

While completing her degree, she presented at Achieving the Dream’s annual conference, sharing insights about how she overcame obstacles in her life.

“Despite my circumstances and all I went through as a child, I graduated. DCCC welcomed me and gave me so many opportunities,” Sanchez said.

San Jacinto College Chancellor Brenda Hellyer takes a selfie with the Class of 2017 and guests. (Photo: SJC)

At Texas’ San Jacinto College (SJC), alum Lonnie Howard, now president of Lamar Institute of Technology, addressed graduates. Howard joined the Army after high school and served with distinction. He received an honorable discharge, but didn’t have any employment skills. His first job was as a janitor in an industrial shop.

He graduated from SJC with his first associate degree when he was 36. Twelve years later, he had five college degrees, including two associate degrees, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in educational administration from the University of Texas.

“Being a former developmental student, then graduating from San Jacinto College with an associate degree in welding, moving on to become a college president, and now invited back to be the commencement speaker, this demonstrates the best of the American Dream,” Howard said.

On to the speakers

College Promise programs have made it easier for many students to afford college.

The first statewide Promise in the nation program started in Tennessee under Gov. Bill Haslam. Two years ago, Haslam visited Cleveland State Community College, greeting students attending under the Tennessee Promise program on their first day of classes. He returned there this month to deliver the commencement address, and took a picture with all the graduating Tennessee Promise students.

The governor also addressed non-traditional students.

“We’re so inspired by what you have done, we decided to take Tennessee Promise and expand it so that now in Tennessee, no matter what age you are starting this fall, you can come back to school absolutely free of charge,” Haslam said.

Haslam also spoke at the Southwest Tennessee Community College commencement ceremony.

At another Tennessee college – Volunteer State Community College – 183 Tennessee Promise students earned degrees.

“It took a big burden off my parents,” graduate Lane Vanveckhoven said. “It helped us out a lot. I wouldn’t have been able to go to school full time without Tennessee Promise.”

Former second lady Jill Biden attended commencement at two community colleges. (Photo: Milwaukee Area Technical College)

Another proponent of Promise programs spoke at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). Jill Biden, the former second lady and community college instructor, is honorary chair of the College Promise Campaign. MATC launched Wisconsin’s first Promise program.

Biden also spoke at Delaware Technical Community College’s commencement last week. It was a sort of homecoming for Biden, who taught English at the college for 15 years.

Harper College in Illinois heard from another former Obama administration official, Arne Duncan. Former U.S. education secretary noted the tenacity, persistence and grit that each Harper graduate is coming away with, acknowledging in particular graduates who were the first in their families to go to college, raising a family or working while going to school.

Harper College President Ken Ender said the Class of 2017 is decidedly special because of its connection to former President Barack Obama’s 2009 challenge to community colleges to produce an additional 5 million graduates by the year 2020. By awarding more than 3,500 credentials this year, Harper has – three years early – surpassed its goal of an additional 10,604 degrees and certificates, or the college’s share of that nationwide goal.

“You’ve built a culture of excellence and innovation, a culture that values inclusion rather than exclusion. You focus not just on access, but completion. You don’t work alone; you build partnerships with other colleges, with the community and with businesses,” Duncan said.

At other community colleges:

College leaders at the podium

Hillsborough Community College

Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, spoke at two community college graduation ceremonies: Hillsborough Community College (Florida) and Labette Community College (Kansas).  He’ll address the graduates of Prince George’s Community College on May 25.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor for the California Community Colleges, will be Golden West College’s (GWC) keynote speaker on May 25. A former GWC student himself, Oakley returns to his roots to share his experiences with this year’s graduates.

At Highland Community College in Illinois, Karen Hunter Anderson, executive director for the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB), spoke at the May 13 ceremony. And James C. Williamson, president of the North Carolina Community College System, spoke to Guilford Technical Community College graduates.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.