Ceremonies Are Rich in Diversity and Inspiration
One graduate is a Mexican immigrant who defied the stereotypes voiced by President Trump. She took seven long years to graduate and was selected by her college to speak at commencement.
Another was a mother whose family was in dire financial straits and returned to school to better its economic circumstances. She did that, and in the process found her calling.
Then there were the three sets of twins who matriculated through college side-byside, accruing achievements and awards that once seemed out of each.
These are just three of the stories of community college commencements in 2017. Plenty of words have been written about poor graduation rates at community colleges. The demand for better results continues unabated. But this year, like every year, thousands of community college students graduated. They completed their studies, traveling diverse paths to further education or a job.
What follows are three snapshots of students who graduated from community college this spring, compiled from various news accounts. Their stories are inspirational and diverse. They cannot be found at Ivy League institutions or flagship universities. They could only happen at community colleges.
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Under a big tent on the Haverhill campus of Northern Essex Community College (Mass.), more than 1,000 people received associate degrees and certificates during recent commencement ceremonies.
Student speaker Daniela Chavez-Hernandez spoke of the long road she took to get her degree in early childhood education — a road that started in Mexico, according to the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Mass.
When she started her academic career in America, she was an undocumented immigrant.
Chavez-Hernandez pointedly referred to last year’s election, when then-candidate Donald J. Trump referred to Mexicans as “rapists and criminals.”
“I am Mexican, and I am not a criminal,” she said. “What I am is a pre-school teacher. I worked in Lawrence with underrepresented families while I was a full time student. I am also the mother of a two-yearold, Brianna.”
Chavez-Hernandez extended the sense of accomplishment she felt to her fellow graduates.
“We are a living testament that these stereotypes and generalizations are incorrect,” she said. “This achievement represents an opportunity to create meaningful change.”
Her road to graduation was never easy, The Boston Globe reported.
She balanced membership in Phi Theta Kappa, a national community college honor society; roles in the Early Childhood Education club and Pathways to Academic and Career Excellence (PACE); working full-time as a preschool teacher; and scoring a near perfect 3.96 grade point average, all while raising Brianna, her 2-year old daughter.
“It took me seven years to get that twoyear associate degree,” she said. “To me, it means the world.”
Emigrating from Mexico to Arizona with her mother and three sisters when she was 16, Chavez-Hernandez spoke no English. After her father died “in a horrible accident, on my first birthday,” her mother, Blanca Hernandez, worked multiple jobs to support her daughters.
Chavez-Hernandez, now 27, began pursuing a college degree in Arizona. Her life detoured when she met John Torres, who was visiting the area on vacation. They fell in love. In 2015, she moved from Arizona to Massachusetts to be with him, continuing her studies at Northern Essex.
“I lost 11 credits when I transferred,” she said. “It hurts me when I think how hard I had worked for it.” But leaving everything behind — school, work, and family — “It was the best decision of my life.”
Of finally getting her degree, Chavez- Hernandez said, “It takes a lot of dedication and sacrifice. I work, then when I come home, I do homework after [Brianna] goes to sleep. I sacrifice my sleep.
“But I’m teaching her a good lesson, creating a love for learning and hard work. It’s definitely a pattern. My mother worked so hard for us. I didn’t appreciate my mom as much back then.”
This fall, Chavez-Hernandez will attend Salem State University, where she plans to pursue bachelor and master’s degrees in social work. She will use her education to continue working with underprivileged kids and their families.
As for her advice to fellow graduates, it’s this: “Be the best you can be — whether it’s work or school. Don’t let anyone underestimate you.”
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When Angelica Smith and her husband faced difficult economic times, she knew it was time to go back to school, not just for her career, but for her children.
“Everything compounded on us,” she said. “It was difficult to pay the bills. I had to tell my kids ‘no’ to everything.”
So in 2011, Smith, a high school dropout, enrolled in the Alvin Community College (Texas) GED program and went on to earn her diploma. This spring, she graduated from ACC with an associate degree. She is now embarking on a career in health care.
“I knew I could do it, so I did things one step at a time,” she said, according to a college new release.
With the encouragement of ACC advisor Toby Herzog, she first enrolled in the Certified Nursing Assistant Program. It helped get her a better-paying job and it was more financial support for her family.
But she wanted to go further. So while working as a nursing assistant, Smith continued to take credit courses. She wasn’t sure yet about what degree plan to pursue until one day, one of her children needed an ultrasound. It changed her life.
“The tech was so loving and I found it was something I could do,” she said.
She quit her job as a nursing assistant and enrolled in the Diagnostic Cardiovascular Sonography (DCVS) program. She quickly excelled and was an influence on other students, said Jessica Murphy, DCVS director.
“She is such a dedicated student,” said Jessica Murphy, DCVS director. ”She lifts up her fellow classmates by encouraging them and forming study groups that meet at her home where she makes them tamales.”
DCVS instructor Deb Kleinhans said Smith’s motivation was inspiring.
“She has worked hard to get to where she is,” Kleinhans said. “She has applied herself for the demands put on her. She has been a wonderful student and friend.”
Smith performed extremely well at her clinical instruction sites and got a job before she graduated. Smith also won the department’s Clinical Star Award along with the DCVS institutional scholarship.
Now that’s she’s graduated and working in the field, Smith said she will take a small break from school to spend more time with her children and gain professional experience as a sonographer. But she plans to continue her education.
“I love caring for people,” she said. “I helped take care of my grandparents. I love interacting with my patients and I love sonography. I feel like I’m in a good place but I do plan to go on and get my bachelor’s degree.”
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Lone Star College-Montgomery graduation was twice as nice for three families.
Devyn and Haley Fitzpatrick; Christopher and Jason Frantz; and Ariole and Ashley Jones, all twins, celebrated their associate degrees with almost 1,400 other graduates May 12. The ceremony was even more special for the Jones sisters because their mother, Brandi Davis, led by example and also received her degree.
“I had a great experience at LSC- Montgomery,” said Brandi. “Professors helped me get through something that I tried to accomplish 20 years ago and I finally did it. I am glad to achieve it with my twin daughters.”
Brandi received her associate of science and is transferring to Sam Houston State University to become a dietician. Ariole received her associate of science in chemistry and is going on to Stephen F. Austin State University to become a chemistry teacher. Ashley received her associate of arts in music education and will transfer to Lamar University to study the same thing.
They said this fall will be the first time they have been apart for a long time.
“It is only a semester,” Ariole said.
“We come back after the semester is over!” Chris Frantz and Jason Frantz are sticking together. Chris received his honors associate degree in computer science, and is transferring to The University of Texas at Austin, while Jason received his honors associates of arts in finance and is waiting to hear back from UT.
“We will room together, if given the option,” said Chris.
The young men decided to come to LSC-Montgomery together because it made sense financially for their family.
“We did not have the funds to both go to a four-year university and live on our own,” said Chris. “Even if there were one of us it would still have been very difficult, but with both of us it was a no brainer to go to LSC-Montgomery.”
The brothers are both Honors College Chancellor’s Fellows, which means they received a full tuition scholarship and a book allowance.
“At first we went to LSC-Montgomery for financial reasons, but overall it was the right decision,” said Jason, who is also vice president of outreach for the Honors College Student Organization and part of the Accounting Club. “Being at LSC-Montgomery has given us so many leadership opportunities. It has been such a big change from high school to now. I did not have any regalia in high school and becoming successful in college has been something that has been really life-changing.”
It was a coincidence that the Fitzpatrick sisters were also accepted to LSC- Montgomery as Honors College Chancellors’ Fellows.
“Professor Kennedy called me first to say I was accepted and I immediately asked, ‘was my sister accepted too?!’” said Devyn. “He actually told me that was confidential and he could not tell me that information!” “I was stressed out!” said Haley. “I found out I was accepted two days after Devyn. I was worried. I learned about the Honors College Chancelor’s Fellows first and I thought, ‘man if I do not get in it would be depressing!’” Devyn graduated with her honors associates of science and plans to attend nursing school; Haley also graduated with her honors associates of science, she will attend Sam Houston State University for biomedical science.
Many think twins constantly switch places, tricking friends, family and teachers, but the Fitzpatricks, Frantzs and Jones have grown out of playing those games in college, though they admitted to trying to pull off switches in high school.
“In our college classes we sat where we were supposed to so our teachers could keep us straight,” said Devyn.
“We do not have the same personality, but similar characteristics,” said Haley.
“We are so much alike,” said Chris. “We do tons of stuff together. It is nice, being twins has forced us to push each other.”
“He has had my back, I have had his,” said Jason.