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2012 June 25 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: A Tassel Worth the Hassle

AP Photo/New Bern Sun Journal, Byron Holland

Students celebrate at the 45th commencement at Craven Community College in New Bern, N.C. The college graduated its largest-ever class, with more than 600 students receiving degrees or certificates.

C  O  V  E  R     S  T  O  R  Y

A Tassel Worth the Hassle
2012 Graduates Chart Diverse Paths to Graduation

Compiled by Paul Bradley 

Community college commencements, by their very nature, are eclectic affairs.

They differ distinctly from the ceremonies held at elite four-year colleges, marked by mostly homogeneous classes of graduates similar in background, aspirations and prospects.

They are unlike high school graduations, characterized by fresh-faced, innocent graduates sweltering in polyester robes as their families beam with pride at the annual rite of passage.

Community college commencements are different, as diverse as the colleges themselves and the students who attend them. This year, community college graduates ranged in age from 18 to 80; they featured graduates trying to find new careers and those seeking a new path after personal or professional setbacks; they offered stories of inspiration and hope; they showed the power of an open door to higher education.

And while the colleges frequently are castigated for poor graduation rates, they do graduate students who inspire with their ability to overcome obstacles. Even as community colleges face new challenges and demands, their success stories remain constant.

Culled from news reports from around the country, Community College Week, as part of its special digital summer edition, has compiled some of the stories of graduates whose experiences could only have unfolded at America’s true egalitarian institutions, the community college.

Committed to Construction

In Nevada, hard hit by the Great Recession, the College of Southern Nevada awarded 2,530 degrees and certificates, the most ever in school history. Among those graduates was Drew Levy, who in 2009 lost his job as a construction project manager, becoming another of the thousands of unemployed local construction workers. The once-booming construction industry in southern Nevada came to a halt as the recession deepened, shedding more than half its jobs.

When Levy donned cap and gown and walked across the stage at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas during the college’s 40th annual commencement ceremony, he became the first graduate of the CSN’s new Sustainable Construction Technology degree program.

Levy took an unusual path to graduation. He did not consider fields with stronger job prospects, but chose to stick with the construction industry that he loved, where he had worked for a decade, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He saw the degree as a way to combine his love of construction with a desire to promote a sustainable environment.

It worked. He already has a job. He is working as a residential energy auditor at Energy Conservation Group, verifying construction quality for new energy-efficient homes, and analyzing older homes to improve their energy performance. As an officer of Efficiency First Nevada, the professional association of home energy practitioners, Levy is active in promoting energy efficiency. He feels secure in his job. He credits the college with helping him find a new path, the newspaper said.

“I never saw myself going to college,” he said. “When the economy went bad, I couldn’t walk away from construction, which I loved. I wanted to move forward. I see work in the industry for this type of degree.”

Success Stories

Across the country, in Bethlehem, Pa., Northampton Community College President Arthur Scott, who is retiring, bid farewell to the Class of 2012 in a surprising manner, according to the Express-Times. Rather than recount his own 36-year career at the college, he singled out members of the Class of 2012 whose success stories have made a lasting impression on him.

“I have found that our most successful alumni possess three common characteristics: they are persistent, they are incredibly curious and their lives and actions are filled with acts of kindness,” Scott said. “The students I am about to single out, I believe, illustrate these traits.”

Nursing graduate LaToya Brown exemplifies persistence, he said. She is graduating with a 3.92 grade point average, and already has a job at Lehigh Valley Hospital, Scott said.

“Things are going well for LaToya but that was not always the case,” he said. “While in high school she was told she was not college material.”

Brown overcame many obstacles before enrolling at Northampton four years ago.

“LaToya found a way, just as many of you have,” Scott said.

Graduate Tia Herawati — whose mother was watching the ceremony live, over the Internet, from her home in Indonesia — exemplifies the kind of curiosity that characterizes good students, Scott said.

“From the moment she stepped off the plane last July, she has been asking questions and trying to explore as much as possible during her short stay in America,” Scott said.

On free afternoons, Herawati would hop on a bus to visit a new place, Scott said. If she met a veteran, she would pick his brain about his experience. The best students must always be curious and committed to lifelong learning, he said.

“Successful people never rest; they are always thinking about what is next, what else can they learn,” he said.

Finally, Scott recognized three other graduates — Elliot Freeman, Josie Velazquez and Afghanistan veteran Justin Shellhammer — each of whom followed a different path to reach graduation, the newspaper reported.

“These are the people you will never forget,” Scott said.

In what could be a mantra for community college students, Scott implored graduates to keep finding a way to reach their goals, undeterred by the economy or by personal hurdles.

“Believe in the beauty of your dream and don’t let anything stand in the way of you achieving that dream,” Scott said after quoting Eleanor Roosevelt. “Continue to have a hunger to achieve. Don’t ever give up.”

Making His Mark

In Maryland, Carroll Community College graduate Luke Fisher was selected by classmates to deliver the student commencement address. He already had made a mark by creating the school newspaper, The Quill, and founding the college’s Green Team environmental club.

According to the Carroll County Times, his was not a straight path to graduation. It took six years and seven different majors to graduate from college with an associate degree in arts and sciences.

“People always tell me that I’ve accomplished a lot,” he told the newspaper. “I really don’t feel like I’ve accomplished that much.”

His community college career started when he decided to enroll in a single course at Carroll Community College. He found his inspiration.

“Carroll taught me I can use my struggles to succeed,” he said, according to the newspaper's account.

Now 23, he plans to study journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he has a full-tuition scholarship.

Fisher realized his passion for journalism through pursuing his natural interests. Creating the school newspaper is the accomplishment of which he is most proud, he said. He also was selected as a member of the 2012 All-USA Community College Academic Team.

“I’ve always tried to be a representative of the student body and get issues out there that they may not have known about otherwise,” he said.

Fisher said he’ll always remember the people he met during his time at CCC.

“Life’s about the relationships that you make and the people that you get to know,” Fisher said. “I hope I will continue to have relationships with them long after I graduate from Carroll.”

New Start, New Life

At Owens Community College in Ohio, Loral Browning, known as Mike to his friends and family, was selected as the college’s class representative and addressed his fellow graduates during the spring commencement ceremony.

At age 59, the Toledo resident earned his associate degree in marketing and sales technology with a financial services sales option. Prior to enrolling at Owens, Browning worked in the food industry as a distributor for 38 years. He never missed a paycheck until 2010, when he lost his job, another victim of the Great Recession, according to a college news release.

Browning said that Owens gave him new opportunities, new friends and a new start in life. He credited faculty and staff with showing him the way.

“Lean on the friends you have made, your family, your advisors and faculty,” he said. “They will help you make the right choices for the future.”

Browning graduated high school in 1971, when Richard Nixon was president and a gallon of gas cost 40 cents. At Owens, he earned a 3.8 grade point average and became a member of the Kappa Beta Delta and Chi Alpha Epsilon national honor societies. In 2011, he served as one of Owens’ student representatives on an international study tour to the People’s Republic of China.

He credited his success to the support and encouragement of the faculty and staff at Owens, including English Professor Holly Burnside, business Professor Jeffrey Hardesty and Ramadevi Kannan, professor of accounting.

The support of his family was also a critical part of his educational success, including his wife, Donna, who pushed him to make sure his homework was finished, along with his four sons.

When Browning, who also is a grandfather, began his studies at Owens, he never thought his educational path would end with an associate degree. He’ll continue his studies after transferring to a four-year college, aiming to earn bachelor’s degree in business.

It’s YOUR TURN: CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q: What stories of inspiration were documented at your college’s commencement this year?
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