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2014 June 7 - 09:10 pm

Commencement 2014

Inspiration, Dedication And Controversy Mark College Graduation Rites

One community college commencement commanded attention for all the wrong reasons.

Another was marked by a graduate who made it from homelessness to high academic honors. One college after another reported record numbers of graduates as many of the students who flocked to campuses during the Great Recession finished up their studies.

Across the country, community college commencements were marked by stories of inspiring determination and perseverance among students who possessed few of life’s advantages, but were ultimately able to don caps and gowns, flip their tassels, overcome their obstacles and claim a college degree.

As the 2014 commencement season winds down, Community College Week provides a sampling of some notable ceremonies. They are based on information provided by colleges and media reports. They provide a glimpse at how community colleges can transform people’s lives by opening doors that would otherwise have been closed. They are the kind of stories that could happen only at a community college.

All the Wrong Reasons

No discussion of community college commencements would be complete without a look at what happened at Pasadena City College (Calif.).

Now in its 90th year, the college serves more than 30,000 students each semester, including a healthy contingent of international students. Among its notable alumni is Jackie Robinson, the Hall of Fame ballplayer who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947; Jaime Escalante, whose work as a high school math teacher was dramatized in the film “Stand and Deliver”; and Kim Carnes, the raspy-voiced singer whose song “Betty Davis Eyes” topped the charts in 1981.

It was another famous alumnus that landed the college in national headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. Dustin Lance Black, an Oscar-winning writer, director, producer and gay rights activist, graduated from PCC in 1994 before graduating with honors from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television in 1996. Black won a 2008 Oscar for his original screenplay “Milk,” the biopic that starred Sean Penn as the slain San Francisco supervisor and gay rights pioneer.

As one of its most illustrious alums, Black was a natural choice to deliver the college’s 89th commencement address, and he was invited to do so. That’s when the problems commenced, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Not long after Black accepted the invitation, it was quietly rescinded. The college had discovered that Black supposedly was involved in a five-year-old sex tape “scandal” that might sully the college’s good name. What the college didn’t discover was that Black was actually the victim of the incident. Some intimate photos of Black and former boyfriend — images Black believed had been destroyed — were stolen and wound up on the Internet. Black, in fact, successfully sued the thief.

With Black disinvited, the college chose Pasadena Public Health Director Eric Walsh to deliver the commencement address. That turned out to be a bad idea. Walsh, according to media accounts, had made a series of discriminatory statements in Seventh-Day Adventist sermons posted online. He condemned homosexuals, Muslims, Catholics, popular culture icons and other groups as well as Darwin’s theory of evolution.

After the sermons went public, Walsh backed out of the commencement address before he, too, could be disinvited. He cited a scheduling conflict. He since quit his job after being suspended.

Black was then re-invited, and accepted, saving the college from further embarrassment. The opening line of his commencement address put the whole episode in perspective, the Times reported.

“I have been blessed,” Black told the graduating students. “Blessed with honors, blessed with invitations to speak at esteemed institutions around the country, around the world, but I say if you measure the weight of an honor by the amount of work it takes to actually get there, well, this might damn well be the biggest honor of my entire life.”

Amazing Grace

Fellow students at Fulton-Montgomery Community College (N.Y.) came to call Grace Rutagengwa “Amazing Grace,” the moniker a testament to the incredible journey she took from the genocide of Rwanda to earning a college degree.

According to the Albany Times-Union, Rutagengwa, now 21, was the youngest of four children raised on her family’s farm in southern Rwanda. Her parents were well-educated members of the minority Tutsi tribe. They employed farmhands who were Hutus, the majority ethnic group. In the spring of 1994, ethnic tensions exploded and led to Africa’s worst genocide in modern times. Over the course of six months, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died violent deaths.

The farmhands and Hutu neighbors set upon Rutagengwa’s parents and siblings with guns and machetes. Her parents and three siblings were killed. Despite being critically injured, Rutagengwa’s mother managed to hide her youngest daughter, then 3, under her bloody skirt before she died. When a neighbor found the corpses, there was so much blood covering the motionless little girl that she thought Grace was dead. But then she saw the girl move, the Times-Union reported:

“The woman, whose name was Providence, sheltered Grace until the girl could be safely transported out of the country, hidden in a suitcase. The orphaned girl endured overcrowded, abusive and unsanitary conditions in refugee camps in Congo and Burundi. There was no formal schooling. Young girls were vulnerable in the lawless camps, so Grace learned to cut her hair short and to dress plainly and tried to pass as a boy so she would be left alone.”

She eventually returned to Rwanda and, at 5-foot-9, grew into a standout basketball player who played on a traveling Rwandan team. During a basketball tournament in New Jersey, she and a teammate fled and sought political asylum. Rutagengwa knew a student from Africa who attended FMCC. She met Robin DeVito, disability counselor at the college and a mother of two. DeVito became Rutagengwa’s guardian and surrogate mother and raised Rutagengwa as her own. It was DeVito who handed Rutagengwa her diploma degree during commencement exercises.

“She has overcome so many hurdles and challenges,” said DeVito. “She has grown into a brilliant, beautiful young woman who is mature beyond her years. She feels she has an angel watching over her. She’s still our Amazing Grace.”

Paying It Forward

While sleeping on the banks of the Mississippi River when he arrived in St. Louis three years ago, Michael Mason had a better future in mind. On May 18, his future arrived. He graduated with honors from St. Louis Community College and now plans to continue his education.

Because of his own struggles, Mason has become determined to help mentally ill and homeless people in St. Louis. He knows first-hand about such obstacles.

“I want to help all those looking to overcome mental illness right here in the St. Louis community, because I have walked in their shoes. I have faced a life of being on the outside of the cultural norm,” he said.

Mason, 35, has come a long way since his days of homelessness. He was named to the 2014 All-Missouri Academic First Team. He’s received a full scholarship from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a cash award of $2,500 from the Pierre Laclede Honors College. Graduating with a 3.95 grade-point average, Mason plans to finish his undergraduate degree and then complete graduate work. He wants to be a school psychologist.

Academic success might have been merely a dream his first summer in St. Louis, but the encouragement of others led to a new purpose.

“Because I chose a community college to begin my journey into higher education, my family and I have a brighter future,” he said.

Mason had grown up in an impoverished border region in South Texas, a college press release said.

“Life has held other obstacles for me, including mental illness and overcoming the hurdles that come because of a late-life diagnosis,” Mason said.

In June 2011, Mason and his future wife, Dawn, took a bus from San Antonio to Arkansas so that he could help her flee an abusive relationship. They then hitchhiked to St. Louis, arriving with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They were homeless for six months, eventually securing living quarters through Places for People, a local social services agency.

“St. Louis opened up its arms to us. People helped us get off the streets. My heart’s desire is to pay it forward,” Mason said. “I have personally seen the broken lives of others, and I want to help.”

Starting classes at STLCC-Forest Park in summer 2012, Mason thrived. He became vice president of service for the Xi Epsilon chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, was in the Forest Park Honors Program, worked as a peer tutor in Academic Support Center and as a supplemental instruction leader.

Now that completing an associate degree has become a reality, Mason won’t soon forget the hurdles he overcame or the people who helped along the way. Because he was a non-traditional student who had not been in any type of academic environment for more than 15 years, Mason decided a community college would be the best place to start.

“After high school, I had no clear focus or ambition in my life. I had joined the Army and served for seven years primarily for the structure it afforded,” he said.

He chose a community college because of its welcoming atmosphere.

“I have felt so accepted going to school here,” he added. “By turning my thoughts to selfless service to others, this in turn has given me a better outlook on life and hope for the future."

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