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Let the spring commencements begin

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Cynthia Bioteau, president of Salt Lake Community College (Utah), opens the college's commencement. (Photo: Win Jensen/SLCC)

​For many community colleges across the country, this has been a year of big change. Most colleges faced funding cuts. Many saw changes in leadership. And for some colleges in the South and Midwest, the communities they serve were devastated by natural disasters.

Yet, at this time of year colleges put challenges aside for a moment to honor their graduates, many of whom have had to overcome difficulties of their own.

In Poplar Bluff, Mo., flooding made some roads impassable and closed Three Rivers Community College for days. But graduation ceremonies remain scheduled for May 22. A special “Student Veterans” ceremony occurred on May 11, marking the first time the college held this kind of event. The idea for it came from an enlisted student who is unable to take part in the May 22 ceremony.

Ala. college ready for graduation post-storm

The news isn’t as good at Shawnee Community College in Illinois, where flooding has postponed commencement until Aug. 6.

Student killed in tornado leaves a legacy

 At Northeast Alabama Community College, where power outages shut down the college for three days, graduation happened as scheduled on May 13. Nonperishable food items were collected at graduation events to help residents hit hardest by the recent tornadoes. Tom Kilgore, president and CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), delivered the commencement. TVA provides flood control, navigation and land management for the Tennessee River system.

From urban to rural

Despite the troubles facing the country, President Barack Obama spoke about holding on to the American Dream on April 29 at one of Miami Dade College’s five ceremonies. He applauded the work of not only the graduates, but also those of previous generations who fought for the same ideals. Obama told the crowd that they need to preserve that dream, and pull others up with them.

“Strive to widen that circle of possibility. Strive to forge that big, generous optimistic vision of America that we inherited. Strive to carry that dream forward to future generations,” Obama said at MDC, which graduated 14,000 students this year.

Smaller rural colleges are also making their mark. At Northern Maine Community College (NMCC), students graduated this weekend with associate degrees in wind power technology. They are the first at NMCC to graduate from that program, which is the first of its kind at a higher education institution in New England. Many of the students already have job offers. 

In other “firsts,” Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) in Utah this month graduated its largest group of “civically engaged scholars.”  About 25 percent of the graduating students participated in a service-learning experience, amounting to 66,190 hours in the community—an economic contribution of $1.4 million, according to SLCC President Cynthia Bioteau. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock was the keynote speaker.

Lawmakers at the podium

Colleges tapped leaders from business, philanthropy and government to help usher graduates into the next phase of their lives.

More commencement photos

Community college professor and Second Lady Jill Biden will speak to the graduates of Montgomery County Community College (Pennsylvania) on May 19. Biden teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College, where Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) gave the keynote on May 15.

Other lawmakers, past and present, will take part in several other ceremonies. Mott Community College graduates in Michigan will hear from former Sen. Donald W. Riegle, Jr. Virginia State Sen. Stephen Newman was presented the 2011 Outstanding Alumnus Award at Central Virginia Community College on May 12. Minnesota’s Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Attorney General Lori Swanson spoke at ceremonies for Central Lakes College graduates.

And at Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts, it’s a law enforcer that’ll speak. Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins, Jr., who started out at NECC, will speak to the college’s 1,200 grads on May 21.

Several community colleges are welcoming their governor to give the commencement address. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon spoke at St. Charles Community College on May 14. The 600 graduates from Norwalk Community College in Connecticut will hear Gov. Daniel Malloy speak st their May 19 ceremony. 

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder delivered Muskegon Community College’s commencement address. Snyder told graduates about his first experience at a community college, when he was 16 and his mother paid $66 for him to take a business class at Kellogg Community College. He took more classes, and graduated high school with 25 credit hours already completed, which resulted in an invitation to attend the University of Michigan. 

“My mother writing me that check and having faith in me changed my life—and it was because of a community college,” Snyder said.

Businesses tip their hats

Industry leaders that are hiring skilled community college graduates have been included in many commencement ceremonies. From the business world, Joseph DeVivo, president of Smith & Nephew Orthopaedics, told graduates of Southwest Tennessee Community College to find their passion, be dependable, include family in their work and give back to their community. 

The Fashion Institute of Technology will welcome Aerin Lauder, senior vice president and creative director of Estee Lauder, and Tony Hsieh, chief executive officer of Zappos.com, to speak in two separate ceremonies on May 24. At Western Technical College in Wisconsin, Joel Guberud, vice president and general manager of Chart Energy & Chemicals, spoke on May 13. Guberud is also a alumnus.

At some community colleges, the people who know the students best are taking to the podium. Tallahassee Community College (TCC) welcomed back former college President T.K. Wetherell. He is credited with helping turn TCC into one of Florida’s premier community colleges. The theme of his speech was success.

“Success is not something you want. Success is something you’re willing to work for,” Wetherell told graduates.

Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa, the largest honor society in higher education, delivered the keynote at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC). The college had its largest graduating class in history, which was especially significant to President Willis Lott, who handed out degrees for the last time. Lott is retiring in June after 43 years of work in education and 13 years at MGCCC.

At Terra Community College, Ohio State University President Gordon Gee had the honor of addressing the 357 graduates receiving degrees and certificates. Retiring Camden County College President Sharon Wedington will serve as speaker at the New Jersey college’s May 21 ceremony.

For Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, there are 14 separate ceremonies in May, which means 14 keynote speakers. The college has 12,400 students graduating this year. That’s up almost 25 percent from last year. Speakers include U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita and Todd Young and Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis.

Helping others

Students shine at graduation ceremonies

Ivy Tech 2006 graduate Kathryn Martin was scheduled to speak but canceled because she is helping with tornado recovery efforts in Alabama. Martin’s own life was turned upside down when a tornado killed three of her family members, including her 2-year-old son, C.J. That prompted her to advocate for legislation mandating that all mobile homes manufactured in Indiana be equipped with an emergency radio to alert residents of severe weather. C.J.’s Law passed in 2007.  

Martin’s message to graduates, delivered by Susan Brooks, vice president for workforce and economic development and general council at Ivy Tech, was this: “Don’t ever give up, no matter what challenges you face in life. When one door closes, several more can open if you keep trying.”

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