COVER STORY: Commencement 2013
AP Photo/The Star-News
C O V E R S T O R Y
Grads’ Success Stories Reflect Colleges’ Rich Diversity
Compiled by Paul Bradley
We are just past commencement season, the time of year when happy graduates don caps and gowns and receive their hard-won diplomas, passing a milestone in their academic careers and personal lives. Colleges large and small, public and private, rich and poor have been marking the occasion with traditional speeches and familiar salutes.
But community college graduations are different. Those bright, smiling faces often are marked with deep lines of experience and wisdom. Many heads of hair are speckled with grey. Students all-too-familiar with academic failure and frustration are experiencing scholastic success, maybe for the first time.
This year, with community colleges in the national spotlight, many graduated record numbers of students. They ranged in age from 18 to 80 and older. They featured students seeking a new path forward after personal or professional setbacks and those who finally realized an elusive dream. They offered stories of perseverance and hope and showed the power of an open door to higher education.
And while the colleges struggle with poor graduation rates and dwindling financial resources, they continue to graduate students who inspire with their ability to overcome obstacles. Amid new challenges and shifting demands, their success stories remain constant.
Collected from news reports from around the country, Community College Week has compiled some of the stories of graduates whose stories could only have unfolded at democracy’s colleges, the community college.
A Mother’s Devotion
Edith Williams was shocked when she learned that the Missouri State University Board of Governors voted to award her an honorary associate degree from Missouri State-West Plains University. After all, she holds only a high school diploma. She’s never held elective office or invented something used in everyday life.
The 67-year-old instead was honored for her unwavering dedication to her daughter, Jennifer, who received a bachelor’s degree on the same day her mother collected her award. It never would have happened without her mother’s devotion, according to accounts in the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader and the college’s news office.
In the summer between her junior and senior years of high school, Jennifer Williams, now 32, was grievously injured when she was thrown from a vehicle after it crashed near her hometown. Her traumatic injuries, coupled with months spent in a coma, left her unable to speak, eat, drink or walk. She was confined to a wheelchair.
But she managed to graduate high school in 1998 with the help of extensive rehabilitation and physical therapy. Then, she started thinking about college. Despite her disabilities, it took little convincing for Jennifer to gain her parents’ support.
“When she told us she wanted to go to college, my first response was ‘let’s just do it,’” said Edith Williams. “I wanted to see her get an education, so I decided at that point that I would do whatever I could to help her.”
Jennifer enrolled in her first college classes at Missouri State University-West Plains in fall 2001. Since then, her mother has driven her to school every day, through the rain and snow, through the cold and the heat, in the early morning and late at night — a 100-mile round trip each day.
Edith became a familiar face on campus, pushing her daughter’s wheelchair between classes. To keep the routine manageable, Jennifer took no more than nine credit hours a semester. In recent years, she began to take some courses online.
On campus, while Jennifer was in class, Edith waited in study areas in the same building, working puzzle books. She visited with faculty, staff and students, and ran errands in town and on campus.
“The ladies in the library were very helpful,” Edith added.“They’d help me look up the information Jennifer needed for her research papers and other classwork.”
By spring 2006, Jennifer earned enough credits to graduate with an associate of arts degree in general studies, becoming the first in her family to receive a college education.This year, she was awarded a bachelor’s degree in business. As always, her mother was by her side.
Weeks ago, Jennifer wrote a letter in support of her mother’s nomination for the honorary degree, according to media accounts. .
“Even when I wanted to attend college so I can get a job and help support myself, my mom has always encouraged me to do so, no matter how much extra work it was for her or how much traveling was involved and endless hours of just waiting for me to get out of class.
“She just did it, no questions asked.”
Dream Come True
Phillip Croce wasn’t particularly proud when he walked across the stage during his high school graduation in 2011. He was, by his own admission, a poor student, one of those who had little choice but to attend a open-admissions community college, according to an account in the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph.
That feeling changed when Croce walked across the stage at Nashua Community College with a wide smile and a deep sense of pride to receive his associate degree.
“When I crossed the stage when I graduated high school, I didn’t really look back at my high school career and say, ‘Wow, I really enjoyed it.’ I mean, I did bad in high school. I had a 2.8 GPA,” Croce said.
“Nashua Community College really overshadows high school because I can look back at my past and say, ‘Wow I’m proud.’”
Croce, of Hudson, N.H., graduated with an associate degree in liberal arts. He plans to continue his education at Johns Hopkins University in the fall.
“My interest is the brain,” Croce said, “because my end goal is that I want to be a neurosurgeon. And Hopkins just has one of the best neuroscience programs out there.”
Croce said he can barely believe he will be going to one of the country’s top institutions of higher education to pursue his dream.
His 3.97 GPA at NCC will help him fit in with other high achievers arriving at Hopkins chasing their own dreams of a future in the medical field.
“It’s a dream come true,” Croce said. “It’s hard for me to even fathom. It’s surreal, you know? But you just have to take it in stride and be confident.”
Shirley Mitchell’s path to the stage at Northampton Community College’s graduation spanned decades, but she never lost her drive.
Mitchell, 82, of Hellertown, Pa., grew up in an era where she was supposed to graduate high school, find a suitable husband and rear children, she recalled. She did just that but always yearned for a college degree, reported The Express-Times of Bethlehem, Pa.
“I married young and didn’t have finances or time to be able to do these things,” Mitchell said. “It’s been a wonderful privilege.”
Mitchell first began pursuing her associate degree at Raritan Valley Community College (N.J.) in 1996 when her second husband was still working. But once he retired the couple moved to Pennsylvania for the lower cost of living. College again seemed financially out of reach, she said.
Then in 2010 Mitchell learned Northampton Community College allows senior citizens who are county residents to attend class for free as long as there is an available seat.
“If I had to pay my tuition I probably could not have done it,” she said. “It was an open door and I stepped in.”
Mitchell graduated with an associate of arts degree in general studies, maintaining a 3.46 grade point average.
NCC Senior Associate Director of Admissions Mary Sinibaldi quickly learned that graduating from college was an important personal goal for Mitchell. Mitchell never considered her age a factor, but Sinibaldi noted few people her age even contemplate entering a classroom.
“Nothing would stand in her way,” Sinibaldi said. “She had that dedication, that commitment.”
Mitchell said she enjoyed spending time with younger classmates at NCC. It changed her opinion of young people.
“If you watch the news, you get discouraged,” Mitchell said. “They were helpful, friendly. We worked together. ... It broadened my mind in many ways.”
Mitchell praised her adviser as well as professors at NCC.
“In the early days we had strict teachers and you didn’t dare speak up,” Mitchell said. “But these teachers are open, encouraging questions and ready to answer. If you have a problem, they are ready to help you.”
Mitchell said anyone who shares her dream should never give up. Just because a door closes and the dream seems impossible, that doesn’t mean the dream is lost. It is merely deferred, she said.
“If this is what you really want, a door will open eventually,” Mitchell said.
“Don’t ever stop learning and reading and growing.”