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2018 May 26 - 12:03 am

Commencement  2018

Annual Graduation Exercises Rich with Diversity and Determination

One graduate is an 84-year-old woman who sees nothing remarkable about her earning a degree in anthropology as an octogenarian. Rather, she sees herself as just another struggling community college student and has plans for a four-year degree.

Another is a mother who walked across the stage to claim her degree in the company of her two daughters, who graduated from the same college on the very same day. Mother and daughters took some courses together and pushed one another across the finish line. For them, education truly was a family affair.

Then there was the student who earned two college certificates and a high school diploma within a couple of weeks of one another and is well on his way to a highpaying career in welding.

These are just three of the stories from community college commencements in 2018 around the country. They reflect the rich diversity, welcoming attitude and open doors that are characteristic of community colleges.

Plenty of words have been written poor graduation rates at community colleges, and the earnest efforts to improve them. But this year, like every year, thousands of community college students did in fact graduate.

They come from all backgrounds, age groups and ethnic groups. They traveled different paths, but share a least one thing: a yearning and determination for a better life through education.

What follows are three snapshots of students who graduated from community college this spring, compiled from various news accounts and college press releases. Their stories are inspirational and diverse, and they are the kind of tales that won’t be found at Harvard or Yale or Duke or Michigan. They could only happen at community colleges.

Never Too Old To Learn

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Gwendolyn Carlson doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. In the days leading up to her college graduation, people kept congratulating her and wanting to hear her story, saying she was an inspiration, according to The Arizona Republic (www.azcentral.com).

Her school wanted to take photos of her. Her community’s newsletter wanted to write a story.

She sees herself as a struggling student, just like the rest of the nearly 270 graduates who walked in commencement at Scottsdale Community College.

But Carlson is 84 years old. She’s the oldest graduate in the college’s history.

Said a sign festooning her graduation cap: “I’m 84. What’s your excuse?”

She earned a 4.0 grade-point average and membership in the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

“I earned every one of those As,” Carlson said.

Her associate of arts in anthropology was her first college degree.

She said her family never took education seriously, but she took her education into her own hands early on. As a 6-year-old, she scrounged for pennies on the streetcar to gather enough money to get to the library.

She graduated from high school, then launched a career at Boeing, starting first as a clerk in the 1960s and working her way up to become an executive assistant to a corporate vice president.

She retired in 1994 after a major health scare: She flat-lined after congestive heart failure. Doctors told her she had three months to live. She defied the odds.

She also beat breast cancer in 2001. “You can’t get rid of me,” Carlson said. She came to Scottsdale in 2011 because the arid climate is better for her migraines.

Her drive to learn brought her to a campus that now feels like home and people who feel like family.

She didn’t intend to get a degree — math was always a barrier — but her academic advisers convinced her otherwise.

“I should at least have a degree for all my effort,” Carlson said.

Carlson doesn’t have a family of her own anymore — she divorced long ago, one son died and the other is estranged. But she’s found strong connections with many people on campus, from students to professors to advisers.

“How many people can have a family this big?” she asked.

Barb Ross, a campus adviser to Carlson, said she literally gets knocked down and gets back up again. Carlson had a fall in 2016, but she got a walker and made her way back to campus.

“Just when you think another student would give up, she would power through,” Ross said.

Ahead of the commencement ceremony, Ross helped Carlson put on her yellow robe. The two women crammed into Ross’ small office at the campus student center, where Ross joked about how long it had been since she helped someone else get dressed.

Ross draped yellow and blue cords over Carlson’s shoulders, signs of her academic honors.

Summa cum laude, the highest distinction.

Carlson wore a medal around her neck, denoting her membership in the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

And then that signature cap, the one that challenges people to consider why they can’t accomplish their goals if an 84-yearold can graduate from college.

Ross teared up, hugging Carlson.

“I’m so proud of you,” Ross said.

“We did it.” Carlson said.

Where Education Is a Family Affair

Eugenia Lee of Natick, Massachusetts, was not alone when she earned her associate of science degree in general studies and her paralegal certificate from MassBay Community College, She was joined by her two daughters, Tanisha and Quiana, who were awarded associate of arts degrees in general studies and associate of science degree general studies respectively on the same day. The mother and daughters have been attending MassBay together for the past several years, and have even taken some classes together, according to a college press release.

“Tanisha began at MassBay and I decided I wanted more in my life,” said Eugenia.

“MassBay was my stepping stone to learn new skills and become marketable. While I was here I learned I loved working with the law and I really want to work with women to help them know and understand their legal rights. It’s been a long time coming, taking a few classes and continuing to take 2 classes every semester.”

“I’m really proud of myself and my daughters, we did it and we did it together.”

Said Tanisha: “It’s hard balancing life responsibilities with school, which is probably the biggest obstacle. Knowing that my mom and sister understand and can help me has made this journey and this degree worth so much more. I’m not going to lie, there were days when I wanted to give up, but my mom, my sisters, my dad, and my kids have been my support system to help me reach my goals.”

“Going to school was hard, especially being a single mother of four kids, but I pushed myself to reach my goals,” said Quiana. “School helped pull me away from the pain of some of the different obstacles I was facing and it gave me something positive to look forward to. I wanted to earn my degree not only for myself, but to show my children how important it is and that it’s never too late to follow your dreams” What’s next for these women? Eugenia, a mother of three daughters, is a member of Phi Theta Kappa National Honor Society, will be continuing her education in the fall to pursue a bachelor’s degree in political science. Her goal is to become a lawyer. Eugenia’s other daughter, Jhanai attends Framingham State University and is set to graduate next year.

Quiana will be transferring to a fouryear university to continue her studies in the Health Sciences to pursue a degree in nursing. She is a single mother of four children, including a set of 16-year-old twins Amariana and Imaria, 12-year-old son Jayden and a 1-year-old daughter Brielle.

Tanisha is a One Family Scholar and will be continuing her studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth to pursue a bachelor degree in Business. She is a single mother of a 10-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.

One Down, One To Go

For Alabama high school senior Caden Behel, brought with it a commencement twofer.

The 18-year-old is set to graduate from high school on May 25, two weeks after he walked the stage at graduation from Northwest-Shoals Community College with two short-term certificates in welding — one in stick welding and one in mig welding.

Behel says he knows he hasn’t chosen the most traditional of paths, but it’s the one that’s best suited for him.

Behel began with dual enrollment classes through Northwest-Shoals in the 11th grade. He also took summer classes at the college last year, and has done more dual enrollment classes this year.

“I’ve been in school year-round for a long time, but I love learning about this stuff so it has really gone by quickly,” Behel said. “I knew pretty early on that this was what I wanted to do.”

He recalled his first experience in career tech at Rogers. The class was doing woodwork making birdhouses and other things.

“I wasn’t very into those birdhouses,” he said jokingly.

“I remember being in there one day and I looked around and saw a machine in the corner. I asked about it and my teacher showed me some things. I was really interested and started doing simple stuff, running beads,” he said. “The teacher was showing me some things and pretty soon I was showing him things he didn’t know. He said, ‘I think you need to just go on and take these (welding) classes.’” Behel said it was the best advice he ever took.

His welding skills have grown and he has continued to excel. Earning such certification while still in high school is difficult and rare.

He’s hoping his hard work will pay off, and he’ll soon be selected to enter a fiveyear apprenticeship with the pipe fitters local. He’ll find out next month if he’s accepted.

If not, he’ll continue his education at Northwest-Shoals Community College and seek his pipe fitter certification.

His goal is to be a certified welding instructor by the age of 23.

“I guess you could say I knew right away that this was my niche,” he said. “Now, I’m just waiting to go to work.”

His instructor at Allen Thornton Career Technical Center, Wesley Heathcoat, called Behel “a very bright, hands-on and inquisitive guy.”

“I think he eats, sleeps and breathes welding,” Heathcoat said. “I can see him going all the way with this. He’s patient and willing to learn. I can see him having total success and reaching his goals.”

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