Commencement Address delivered by Mardi McGuire-Closson

Thank you, Dr. Erickson for that very kind introduction.

First, let me begin by saying congratulations to all the graduates. You did it!

As I begin my remarks, please note that you will see some photos on the large screens. These depict our students and staff at various events and programs throughout the last two years. Enjoy revisiting these events and seeing the NCC family.

When Dr Erickson asked if I would give the Commencement address, my gut reaction was to say "no way." I was, of course, deeply honored to be asked, but also knew this was way out of my comfort zone. I couldn't, say no though, since I so often talk with students about stepping out of their comfort zone to learn more. So here I am - way out of my comfort zone!

Many commencement addresses are political commentaries or are about giving advice. In fact, if you have watched the news about graduations lately, you know that several people withdrew as commencement speakers because of student protests about their political views or their work. I am sure glad that I wasn't protested.

While I have a reputation for being bossy, I am not thinking you all need a lot of advice from me. So instead, this time will be used to talk about you -- what we have learned from you, and perhaps just weave in a some words of wisdom for you to take with you as you move on to the next phase of your life.

Community colleges are amazing places with even more amazing students. Northampton is one of the most amazing. For the last 28 years, I have learned so much from students, and tonight want to share just a few tidbits of that.

Several years ago I met a student named Jennifer. Her life prior to NCC had been one of turmoil -- growing up in a home with a single parent who had a serious drug addiction and did almost anything to satisfy that addiction, most of which was illegal. Jennifer had many sleepless nights as a child wondering if she would be harmed by some of the guests in their home. And then (as Jennifer told me) an angel came along and offered to take her into her home. She lived with this family through high school and they provided her a safe and loving environment where she could feel good about herself and being a student.

Jennifer came to NCC after high school as she had no other alternative financially. She told me she had goals of studying psychology and hoped to work with troubled youth. She achieved those goals, excelling at NCC and then going on for a bachelor's degree and then a master's in social work. Today she works as a family therapist for an agency that helps families build the bonds they need to stay together and to provide safe and healthy environments for children. Jennifer could have been a product of her early unhealthy environment. Instead she was a product of the high expectations her "angel" had for her. That angel and many others saw the diamond in the rough and offered her a place and environment to shine, and Jennifer did just that! Jennifer taught me a lot about resilience, courage, and kindness.

Learning from NCC students is both inspiring and fulfilling. We have learned from you what it means to be tenacious, uncertain, courageous, insecure, and, compelling. Your own lives are often very complicated---you are parents raising children; working and going to school; some are grandparents going to school and setting positive examples for their grandchildren; you are young adults maturing and finding your way to independence; some of you are here for a second chance at education.

You have found mentors to challenge and inspire you and sometimes pick you up when you are feeling down. The obstacles are many for NCC students - poverty, financial strains, disabilities, uncertainty in the beginning about academic goals, and demanding work environments. Sometimes your own stamina feels diminished, but you continue to set high goals for yourselves and to find ways to overcome the obstacles.

I see obstacles as opportunities to grow stronger and even better at what you do. If you see them only as obstacles, that is what they will stay. NCC students are opportunity seekers - that we have all learned. Listen to these words about the importance of second chances from a student's "This I Believe" project done in Professor Acerra's public speaking class:

"I believe our greatest trait is humility -being humble despite our many attributes. It is the value of our character that is important. I know that our differences unify us, and I know that as we climb the cliffs higher, we are never too high to turn back and give someone a helping hand up the cliffs. You know that we all have made mistakes. Being humble is what unifies us and is our greatest trait because it verifies the notion we are all equal. I believe in second chances."

The following words and insight from students here today also provide evidence that this educational journey has been all about opportunity:

From graduate 1 -"Higher Education means many things to me, but most of all it represents hope."

From graduate 2 - "I will never assume that I am not able to overcome anything that comes my way."

And from graduate 3 - "Education is the sharpening tool that hones one's gifts, unlocks inner talents and skills, and even shapes one's destiny."

Perhaps some of you in the audience don't know some of the interesting accomplishments and efforts students in this class have been a part of. While they have earned a diploma, certificate and/or degree, we are here tonight to celebrate more than just a piece of paper, because the paper alone won't do the trick.

It is about who you serve, what you do with your education, how you care for yourself and others and what impact you make. You can pursue a job that earns you a lot of money, but I can guarantee you that the folks who will admire and entrust themselves to you will be looking well beyond that salary and so will you.

Your engagement in the greater good (and you will decide if that is in your church, local school or in politics, for example) is what will matter and what people will know you for. I have no doubt the engagement we saw at NCC will carry forward with many of you.

Some of the examples of the work these graduates were involved in as part of their educational journey and support of their community included: developing an anti-bullying campaign for elementary school children on a Navajo reservation in Arizona; working on a tax-preparation program for low-income individuals - 276 tax returns were filed through 900 hours of service; quite a few students worked on the Enough is Enough campaign to rally awareness about the negative impact of violent behavior....even the baseball team and their coach (seen in a couple of pictures) walked a mile in red high heels to support the effort of Walk a Mile in Her shoes - an awareness campaign about the devastation of sexual assault. Throughout the year students helped prepare and serve meals at the Trinity Arc Soup Kitchen, they tutored local high school students in math, raised money for local animal shelters, and one student devoted her time to raise awareness about the plight of undocumented youth trying to pursue an education. The Urban Arts Association was formed by students to help address diversity and an appreciation of the Urban Arts. The list goes on and on.

NCC is a place that values diversity, encourages discourse that asks us to listen to voices and ideas that are not always in sync with our own and to learn how to discuss those divergent ideas in a way that respects differences. I, along with many of my colleagues, hope you have seen the incredible learning opportunities that come from these moments and will take this forward with you. Never stop learning and listening - and stay engaged. Engage in the ways you can contribute. Remember there is never a substitute for enthusiasm, that the connections you make can and will make a difference, and finally, some very good advice from last year's commencement speaker, the president of Cedar Crest College: "When going into a situation, be over prepared!"

I began with a story about a student who taught me about courage, resilience and kindness. I want to tell you one more story. That is about Larry, who came to NCC to study after he retired. A World War II veteran, he had always wanted the opportunity to attend college and that didn't come his way until he was near 70. He pursued a general studies degree and not long after beginning his studies at NCC he read about the tennis team and approached the coach about playing. He had played tennis his whole life. He did indeed join the team and played very well - making it to the state finals and ending up in the state championship singles match. As he walked out onto the court, his 19 year old opponent kind of smirked - like - "Are you kidding me? This is my competition?" Taking victory for granted, the opponent got beat bad by Larry. Two years later, Larry told me it was the thrill of a lifetime for him to win that match - but the bigger thrill was the opportunity to be at student in college and to learn so many things.

About a month ago, I heard Rashad Thomas, a student at NCC who studies on the Monroe campus, deliver this poem he wrote. You might find his words inspiring:

Everyone is born to leave a mark on this world.

I believe in a mark that is to be beautiful and everlasting,

But it is clear to see that a footstep in the sand can prove that a mark can be easily forgotten.

There comes a time when the crowd gets quiet.

Your jersey stops being sold and worn by your admirers because you are admired no more.

Legends don't last forever.

One day far in the future Lebron James will not paint the same flashing images in minds as he does today.

May your name never die.

May your name forever be carried on the mouths of your children.

May you name forever be on the minds of those you have touched.

May your story be one that inspires two to raise the next great one.

May our one life improve many more lives,

Because that is the way to live forever!

As I come to a close, I want to share one final thought. I heard Dr. Javier Avila say this to a student we were interviewing for a scholarship. As you move on to a new phase of your life - whether that involves working, taking care of someone, or transferring to pursue an advanced degree, think about these words and how they might apply in all that you do..."Life is urgent - the time for excellence is now."

And, finally, a graduation is a celebration, right? At NCC we value celebrating students and education, so I am hoping I won't be left alone on this, and that the Class of 2014 will join me in one last celebration to show our family , friends and colleagues that we are happy" to be commencing and celebrating this graduation. Because we like to do things in style and to be recognized for that - let's make it go viral. Get your cell phones and cameras out, and let's get "Happy" together for just a minute or two and show the world the side of us that celebrates our students. Join me in the Happy Dance!

Go with pride, enthusiasm, and never ever forget where you came from and to take the time to help others along the way. That is part of the Northampton Way. I wish you much happiness, lots of opportunities and hope you find a career as rewarding and enjoyable as I did for 28 years!

Congratulations, Class of 2014!

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