The perseverance sheepskin: Holyoke Community College honors 1,030 can-do graduates

Last modified: Monday, June 01, 2015

HOLYOKE — Holyoke Community College graduates shared stories of the difficult but rewarding paths that led them to the stage of the MassMutual Center in Springfield Saturday morning, where thousands gathered to cheer on the 1,030 members of the class of 2015.

In her commencement speech, student orator Kathleen Keady of Hadley talked about how developing Alopecia Areata, an autoimmune disease that attacks hair follicles, led her to return to HCC after dropping out over 30 years ago.

“As much as Alopecia turned my life upside down, I have now come to see it as a gift,” Keady said. “The past three years have been the most amazing and rewarding time in my life.”

Health struggles also led Nicole M. St. Hilaire, another one of Saturday’s graduates, to HCC. St. Hilaire, who is 32 and lives in South Hadley, decided to attend HCC after finding out that her years of medical problems were the result of an allergy to dairy and gluten. St. Hilaire became interested in educating others about health and nutrition, and will study at the University of Massachusetts School of Public Health this fall.

Though St. Hilaire said she was wary of being a nontraditional student with three children, professors were understanding and helped her gain confidence.

“When I first entered HCC, I was kind of nervous about starting school, especially being an older student and not straight out of high school,” St. Hilaire said. “My professors were really understanding. It was really good that they were accepting of different life circumstances.”

Patricia G. Sandoval, a professor of theater and speech at HCC and this year’s recipient of the Elaine Marieb Faculty Chair for Teaching Excellence, commended the graduates on overcoming obstacles and reflected on her own experience as a student at HCC over 30 years ago.

“I, too, overcame obstacles as I persevered day-to-day and year-to-year to get to class, to get the research done and to take the classes I feared the most,” Sandoval said. “I, too, did this while attending to work, family, home, cars that don’t work, and on and on and on. You know the drill, right? But I, like you, found a way to get it done.” Sandoval relayed three “truths” she discovered along her own journey at HCC and beyond — those of commitment, collaboration and compassion.

At the end of her speech, she asked the graduates to repeat those three truths back to her, which they did with enthusiasm.

“I think you’re ready to graduate,” Sandoval said.

The most common credentials awarded to the graduating class were liberal arts and sciences, business administration, criminal justice, nursing and psychology, as well as certificates in human services and medical billing. The graduating class has an average age of 28, with 73 percent of graduates under 30. Graduates come from more than 70 Massachusetts cities and towns, as well as other states and countries including Brazil and China.

Jeffrey Anderson-Burgos, the graduate who presented the class gift, a bioluminescent lamp, has high expectations of his class.

“Every single student graduating today should remember the faces sitting around them — paying particular attention to their own — and expect to see those graduates doing amazing, world-changing things with their lives,” Anderson-Burgos said.

Anderson-Burgos, who will study political science at UMass and jokingly held up a piece of paper that read “White House or bust,” lauded professors and staff for helping students reach their potential.

“It is because of the amazing staff at HCC who inspire students to believe in themselves that so many are able to thrive and shine the light that they did not know they had hidden inside,” Anderson-Burgos said.

Lisa L. Kowal, 48, of North Adams, echoed that sentiment. Kowal came to HCC unsure of what classes to take and lacking professional confidence. With guidance and encouragement from professors, Kowal became passionate about neuroscience.

“These professors were a foundation and a springboard for me. In sincere honesty, without them, I would not have realized that I could go beyond what this is right here,” Kowal said, adjusting the honor cords on her cap as she prepared to enter the ceremony hall.

“The investment that they have in their students — I can’t even describe that. I was talking with my professor this morning and I’m like, ‘Holy cow, thank you so much. I am going somewhere because of your investment.’” Kowal added that because of her experience at HCC, she now has long-term plans to go into epigenetics.

“I have a long-term trajectory, and I never knew I could have that,” Kowal said.

St. Hilaire is excited about her next step as a public health student at UMass, and advised other students to push themselves.

“Sometimes it seems like there’s a lot of work, you’re kind of struggling to get through and the day-to-day things weigh you down and make you feel like it’s going to take a really long time to graduate. You’re putting in a lot of effort, and you may not see the end goal,” St. Hilaire said. “Now, seeing that I’ve made the end goal, it actually just felt so big. Now I’ve done it, and now it’s real.”


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