One college awarded a degree to one of its own deans, who already had earned doctoral, bachelor’s and master’s degrees but now knows first-hand what it takes to complete a distance education program.
Another handed an associate of science degree in biology, physics and mathematics to a 17-year-old prodigy who spent his childhood teaching himself mathematics and reading high-school textbooks. He excelled in college and delivered his college’s student commencement address.
Then there is the valedictory of Second Lady for Jill Biden, who delivered the commencement address at the college where she teaches, telling of her passion for community colleges and the hope they embody for millions of students.
Plenty of words have been uttered about poor graduation and completion rates at community colleges. The demand for better results continues unabated. But this year, like every year, thousands of community college students graduate. They completed their studies, traveling diverse paths to further education or a job.
What follows is a small collection of community college commencement stories, compiled from various news accounts this spring. Theirs reflect stories that won’t be found at Ivy League institutions or flagship universities. They could only happen at community colleges.
Scott Herrin, a dean at Cuyamaca College (Calif.), toiled for years to earn his three college degrees: a bachelor’s, a master’s degree and a doctorate in educational leadership. He now has a fourth: an associate degree from Cuyamaca College.
Herrin received an associate degree in lifelong health and well-being after a year of taking classes online, according to a college press release. Herrin said he earned his other degrees to advance his professional career. But this degree was simply a learning experience — about both the subject and to delve into the student experience.
“What made me decide to do this is because I have fallen in love with the community college,” Herrin said. “Who we are and what we do is so important. If I am going to make a career working in this system, I thought it was super important for me to say that I also am a product of the community college.”
Herrin took part in commencement ceremonies as the college’s dean of math, science and engineering. But he declined to join the college’s 640 graduates who received more than 1,000 degrees and cer tificates.
“I did this for me and I am proud of it,” he said. “But there are so many better stories taking place at commencement.”
Although he’s well-known from his six years working at the college, Herrin said he was mostly able to maintain his anonymity in his online classes. Teachers and fellow students were less likely to recognize him because his full name is Kevin Scott Herrin, and he showed up on class rosters as Kevin Herrin instead of Scott Herrin, the name he goes by.
“One of my former students ended up being a classmate and she asked me on a discussion board if I was the dean,” Herrin said. “I emailed her and told her I was trying to remain anonymous.”
Like many students, Herrin had to juggle his classes with a busy work schedule and parenting his 6-year-old daughter and 8- year-old son. He said his experience helped him better empathize with the students who need to strike a balance between their studies and a host of other obligations.
“It made me truly appreciate our students. I always have, but it really makes you understand the effort our students make to come to school,” Herrin said. “They want to be here and I want to help them!”
As a small boy, Joseph Heavner eschewed playing outside or watching TV. Instead, Heavner, now 17, whiled away the hours teaching himself mathematics and reading high-school textbooks.
According to an account in The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown (Md.), Heavner not only taught himself high school math and science, but by middle school, he had read the entire “Grey’s Anatomy,” the 19th century text on the anatomy of the human body and namesake of the acclaimed television show.
“I was kind of an odd child,” he said. Heavner’s passion for learning and his quest for knowledge continue. Earlier this month, he graduated from high school. Two weeks before that, he walked across the stage and received an associate of science degree in biology, physics and mathematics from Hagerstown Community College.
Heavner was a dual enrollment student, part of the college’s STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medical) Technical Middle College, a program that allows students to earn an associate degree while completing their high-school graduation requirements.
The STEMM program includes courses in science, technology, engineering, math and medical. Heavner was one of 15 students enrolled in the program.
While at HCC, Heavner took an average of 20 credits per semester. On top of that, he was a volunteer and paid tutor, served as president of the STEM Club, a liaison to the Phi Theta Kappa Student Government Association, a member of the school’s History Club and the student government president.
“The nice part of being (at HCC) are the professors,” he said. “They have significantly more background in teaching.”
Christopher Lewis, an associate professor of mathematics, said it was a privilege having Heavner in his class.
“In a career of teaching that spans over 30 years at the community college and university levels, Joseph Heavner is without a doubt the most accomplished and gifted student I have ever taught,” Lewis said in an email.
“He is also mature, kind and thoughtful. He has volunteered many hours as a tutor and has been a personal mentor to students in the math program, constantly encouraging them to take additional classes and become involved in competitions.
He has been a source of inspiration to those around him,” Lewis said.
Heavner, who will enter the University of Maryland’s Honor College as a junior in the fall, is slated to take three graduate math courses. He plans to pursue a doctorate degree in mathematics or physics, followed by a medical degree and a law degree.
His career plans are just as ambitious. “Ultimately, I want to have a few careers in academia, doing research, teaching, medicine, law and politics,”‘ he said.
For now, however, Heavner just wants to chill and enjoy the summer.
“It feels good to be done,” he said.
“I’ve been here so long, and I’ve been so busy. I want to play some sports and hang out with family and friends.”
For Jill Biden, the commencement at Northern Virginia Community College marked her final commencement address as the nation’s Second Lady. Her husband, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., leaves office in January, and the couple is expected to leave Washington.
But if past is prelude, Mrs. Biden will keep on teaching. A longtime community college instructor, she recounted how her heart resides on campus despite all the trappings of Washington power.
“When I took (Dean Jimmy McClellan) up on his offer to visit the Alexandria campus, I immediately fell in love,” she said “It felt like home. Joe and I had just moved into the Vice President’s Residence at the Naval Observatory in D.C. And I was given a new office in the White House. It has marble floors and columns, a fireplace, and large windows that overlook the National Mall.
“Then of course, I have my cubicle at NOVA. But, like all the other teachers, my cubicle is filled with family photos, crayon drawings from my grandchildren, notes from my students. It’s a place that feels most like me. It’s been an honor to serve our country but I knew at the time that if I wanted to stay true to myself, I had to keep teaching. Because teaching is not just what I do; it’s who I am.”
“As a lifelong educator, I couldn’t leave that behind.”
This year, Northern Virginia Community College marks its 50th anniversary.
The first graduating class had 82 students. Last month, more than 7,600 students received their college diplomas in 60 fields of study.
As she addressed the graduates, rather than dispense advice, Biden shared her own thoughts about the community college movement. As things change, she said, some things remain constant.
“As I was thinking about what to say to all of you tonight, rather than give you advice on how to succeed in life, I gave self an assignment. Every semester in my class, I assign an essay to my students using the title, ‘This I Believe.’ I first heard about it on National Public Radio. I ask them to tell me their core beliefs. Something they would be willing to stand up for; to speak for; to fight for.
“I’d like to share with you my own essay about what I believe.
“This I believe: I have long said that community colleges are America’s best kept secret, but I believe it’s time for that to change. I believe we need to celebrate community colleges — and their students — for who they really are: innovative, inspiring and essential. Not just celebrate, but support.
“But this, too, I believe: Too many hardworking Americans still have to worry about whether college is affordable. For millions of people across the country, community college is the single best path to opportunity — to achieving their dreams — whether that means earning a four-year degree or finding a rewarding career.
“This I believe: The more than 1,100 community colleges nationwide are not just the key to a brighter future for their students, they are the backbone of America’s postsecondary education and training system — and one of the keys to a more prosperous economic future. That’s why I also believe — as does President Obama — that community college should be free for all responsible students.
“This I believe: With the education that you have received here at NOVA, there is literally no limit to how high you can go. Community college graduates have gone on to become successful CEO’s, journalists, Hollywood directors, even astronauts.
“Finally, this I believe: a community college education can truly change people’s lives. And community college graduates — including every single one of you — can change the world.
“I believe in you. Always believe in yourselves.”