On a Sunday morning in mid-May, almost a thousand college students gathered for commencement at the athletic center on the Grant Campus of Suffolk County Community College. It was an historical gathering. It was the first time in the college's history that all three campuses gathered for commencement. There was an excitement in the air that was contagious. The athletic center was packed to overflowing with family and friends of the class of 2007.
Dr. Shirley Pippins, President of Suffolk County Community College, opened the celebration by welcoming the graduates and all of their invited guests. She began her brief address by acknowledging the extraordinary achievements of the class of 2007. She creatively illustrated their diversity, their achievement and their exceptional hard work, by way of an interactive illustration. She made her point. The class of 2007 was a class of distinction, and as President, she was very proud.
Dr. Pippins reminded all who had assembled for commencement that Suffolk County Community College works hard to promote intellectual discovery, physical development, social and ethical awareness and a wide range of other opportunities that through education transforms lives, builds communities and improves society (Mission Statement, SCCC). The College is committed to maintaining high educational standards, fostering and inspiring student success and creating life long learning opportunities in the context of an enriched learning environment that empowers students to transform their lives.
After the president's welcome, there were three student speakers who represented each campus. Their talks were exceptional. Probably the most dynamic student speaker was Myel Hill from the Grant Campus. Ms. Hill, twenty-eight, described herself as a non-traditional student because she had dropped out of Suffolk. She first came to college in 1996. She indicated that when she first started school, she did not believe in herself. She went on to say that her college experience not only provided her with the academic skills to survive in the world, but also helped her to reclaim her life and belief in herself. She said, "I excelled beyond my wildest dreams." In addition to her exceptional academic record, Ms. Hill was awarded the Chancellor's award for Student Excellence.
Suffolk County Community College is probably among the best kept secrets in the metropolitan area. Our new president has a challenging vision for our college community. As an academic leader, she is a doer. Her administration is committed to attracting strong leadership and distinguished faculty, so that the college can continue to be a learning environment of excellence. The college is not merely interested in the development of the intellect, but rather of the whole person. As an academic institution, Suffolk County Community College is committed to empowering its' students to be critical thinkers and constructive doers.
The class of 2007 will be attending some of the finest colleges and universities around the country. As a class, they are well prepared to face all of the challenges before them. Suffolk has given them the tools to navigate any landscape of higher learning and not only succeed, but also excel.
It was refreshing to be among young scholars from every walk of life, who are excited about learning and are profoundly grateful for their Suffolk experience. There was at least one graduate among the almost one thousand who participated in commencement who expressed that profound gratitude for the learning and growing experience he had at Suffolk County Community College.
JC started Suffolk right after high school. He admits he initially registered because he felt he had no other options. He didn't want to go away and life at home was not great. His Mom was pretty sick.
During his first semester, he took the basic courses that most freshmen take. He finished the term by the skin of his teeth. In the spring, he started off well, but by mid-terms, his life was out of control. His Mom passed away from cancer. At age nineteen, he was alone. He dropped out of school and floundered for a couple of months.
He made a series of reckless decisions that almost cost him his life. Then, he remembered a counselor at Suffolk that he made a connection with. After a conversation with someone who he respected, he made an appointment to see that counselor again.
He was shocked that the counselor remembered his name and a whole lot of stuff about him. They talked for a while about his Mom, his life and where he was going. His counselor encouraged him to re-register for school. He helped JC design a plan that he could succeed with, a plan that worked. JC went from being a borderline student to a student graduating with a 3.5 grade point average. He made application to St. Joseph's College, was accepted and was offered a partial scholarship. He hopes to begin classes there in the fall.
JC proudly walked up to receive his associates' degree from the Executive Dean, when his name was called. Tears were streaming down his cheeks, because he knew his mother was smiling down upon him at a dream come true. He was the first in his entire family to receive an associates' college degree.
As JC spoke about this important achievement, he expressed that none of this would have happened if his counselor did not take the time to reach out to him. The care and concern that JC felt made all the difference. His counselor made him feel like he was a somebody who had the potential to become whatever he wanted to be.
Tim Russert once said, "No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to lift up another person. That is your charge. That is your challenge. That is your opportunity."
Those words truly characterize what took place in JC's life. On that May day, on the Grant Campus of Suffolk County Community College, a struggling twenty-one year old college student was transformed. He felt that his brokenness had been healed, his moral compass restored and his future direction charted.
He left commencement feeling renewed and equipped to navigate the rough waters of a world that is often narcissistic and self-serving. While at Suffolk, JC reclaimed his life, learned about giving and doing, and learned the importance of trying to make a difference.
Despite the landscape of war, bigotry and human exploitation, there is an extraordinary college community with a transforming vision that is challenging students from every walk of life to become all that they can be. This historic commencement clearly represents a beacon of hope for a community that too often hovers in darkness and despair.
We are fortunate to have that oasis of opportunity in our midst. That commencement was a powerful reminder that education does not have to be a wasteland of human potential!