Surprise theme of graduation at Holyoke Community College

Last modified: Tuesday, August 05, 2014

SPRINGFIELD — Surprise was the theme during the 67th commencement ceremony for Holyoke Community College which was held at the MassMutual Center Saturday morning. Degrees were given to 1,078 graduates.

James M. Knapp, a professor of biology at the college and this year’s recipient of the Elaine Marieb Faculty Chair for Teaching Excellence, centered his keynote address on that theme, drawing on the experiences common to many community college students.

“I know many of you undergraduates have also had some surprises relating to your time at Holyoke Community College,” said Knapp. “You might be surprised to be here, because you are the first person in your family to go to college. You might be surprised because you lost your job and had to go back to school to retrain, because I did that too. Maybe a divorce or other family disaster forced you to come here. Well, I’m glad you made it.”

Knapp described to the crowd estimated at 2,500 the many challenges that he believes both the world and the Pioneer Valley are facing, and urged the graduating class to surprise those in attendance by tackling them head on.

“Many of you have realized that things are not so good on Planet Earth. The sicker are getting sicker, the poor are getting poorer, and the hungry, hungrier. The plants and animals, who are our companions, are disappearing before our eyes,” Knapp said. “Today, your energy, your intelligence, and your will gives me great hope that in a decade or so, we will be able to say things are doing better than they were in 2014.

“So go ahead, class of 2014,” Knapp said. “Surprise us.”

A second surprise came from student speaker Taylor Hildack, a music major who appeared on a previous season of “American Idol.” Instead of delivering a traditional speech, Hildack sang for the audience, accompanied by a jazz band, to resounding applause.

Other student speakers included Robyn Sutton-Fernandez, who spoke about her decision to earn a better life for herself by attending HCC, and Heather Brouillard, who recounted the story of being forced to attend community college after being unable to pay for an expensive education at a university in Washington, D.C., and being surprised by the opportunities and education offered at HCC.

“I made the decision in my early 30s that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life asking people what they want on their sandwich,” said Sutton-Fernandez. She said attending HCC gave her the opportunity to continue her education at Mount Holyoke College in the coming fall semester.

Members of the graduating class and their parents, as well as the school’s faculty, recounted similarly inspiring stories before to the ceremony.

Psychology major Tatiana Lakalo, 28, said she crossed oceans to obtain her degree. Born and raised in Hawaii, Lakalo moved to California after joining the U.S. Air Force. When her boyfriend was hired for a job at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, she crossed the country with him and began attending HCC.

“I was looking at colleges, and finally settled on Holyoke Community,” said Lakalo. “It feels like home, it really does.”

Lakalo also will attend Mount Holyoke in the fall, where she will spend the next two years furthering her education in psychology. One day, she said, she hopes to become a forensic psychologist.

Andrew Magistri, 20, of Agawam, said his time at Holyoke Community College has been much different than he expected.

“Whatever everyone always tells you about community colleges, how it means you won’t go anywhere … being here was a lot more fun than I expected, and I learned so many things that I otherwise wouldn’t have,” Magistri said.

He will continue on to the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he will major in finance and try to build a career as a stockbroker.

“I had a good time at HCC. It was very rewarding and my parents are very proud,” said Chanelle Brodeur, 20, of Chicopee, who graduated with a degree in sociology and a certificate in human services. “I feel like there’s still a lot of work to be done and I’m eager to get my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, too!”

She said she would be pursue those degrees at American International College in Springfield, where she will major in psychology and minor in sociology with the goal of becoming an emotional-abuse counselor.

“I want to be there for younger girls and make them feel like anything is possible,” said Brodeur, who said she grew up in poverty and is the first person in her family to graduate from college. “I’ve known I wanted to do it since I was 8 years old.”

Tim Fennin, of South Deerfield, made the trip to Springfield to watch his daughter, Logan, graduate with her associate degree in sciences.

“I’m immensely proud. She held down a job at a rehabilitation home and still graduated with high honors,” Fennin said. “So I’m just so proud of her.”

Irma Medina, the director of the college’s Pathways Program, which helps students at HCC prepare to attend selective liberal arts colleges, such as Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith, said she is extremely proud of all the graduates in this year’s class.

“To know these people balance work and school and family, and still maintain the resilience to reach their goals, I’m just so proud,” Medina said. “My favorite part is looking into their eyes and seeing the emotion of what they’ve accomplished. It’s my favorite time of the year.”


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