What does it mean to have grit, that strength of character that allows you to tap into inner courage and resolve during the most challenging of times? Is it balancing one, two or even more jobs while taking classes? Is it juggling family responsibilities and homework? Could it be facing financial difficulties and having to prioritize expenses in order to meet your goals? In the case of many Northampton Community College (NCC) students, it is all that plus having to also rise to meet the challenge of a world-wide health pandemic.
On June 18, nothing could stop these resilient students from celebrating their grit and their achievements at the College's very first virtual commencement ceremony.
"To be clear, this is not exactly what any of us envisioned when we began the year," Dr. Mark Erickson, NCC president, said in the recorded commencement video that was broadcasted on the College's website. "But the fact that we are online for this year’s ceremony does not in any way take away from this great and glorious occasion or the extraordinary accomplishments of each of you, our students."
Numbering 691, the graduates Dr. Erickson described as a "very special class at a pivotal moment in our country's history," ranged in age from 14 to 75, hailing from 17 countries, with 17 graduating with a perfect 4.0 GPA.
Given the unusual circumstances surrounding the spring semester, it was deemed essential to have student voices as part of the ceremony. Two graduating students, Kim Gallo of the Monroe Campus and David Martinez-Saenz of Bethlehem Campus, who both served as past student body presidents of their respective campuses, shared a few words of congratulations and encouragement with their fellow graduates.
"Even now as we learn to navigate the new norms that we've been faced with, your resilience is nothing short of inspirational," Gallo told her classmates. "I want to encourage you to continue meeting each new challenge with that same spirit. Miss USA 2016 DeShauna Barber said 'do not fear failure but please be terrified of regret.' Take chances. Thank you for your grit. You will go down in history."
David Martinez-Saenz outlined some of the challenges he and his fellow students faced: "We struggled to deal with online classes, lagging Wi-Fi, the distraction of being confined in order to ensure the best for others, and finally, let's not forget the challenge we faced just to get a roll of toilet paper!"
He also shared that he personally dealt with COVID-19, and balancing being ill and school was not an easy task.
"This moment in our life has either refortified or enlightened the notion that life is not easy. We'll be able to shed light on other obstacles still to come. As NCC graduates, with the skills we have received, we can recognize the unity, justice and obligation we need to build a better tomorrow."
Martinez-Saenz closed by sharing a Spanish proverb: "Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.
Dr. Erickson described Teresa Donate, professor of counseling and faculty speaker, as, "a bit of a living legend around NCC, having spent the last 27 years here in a variety of roles. During that time, she has touched the lives of literally thousands of students on our campus."
Donate acknowledged that collectively, we're all experiencing very difficult times. "It's a time when we feel that our most beloved liberties: freedom of thought, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press; when we feel that these are in jeopardy because of the current pandemic and social unrest."
She asked graduates to think back to their time at NCC. "Remember all the cultures you learned about in the classroom, remember all the people you met from different backgrounds, imagine how you expanded your knowledge from learning about human anatomy to complicated math calculations, to learning how to speak in public - remember that darn speech class? - remember that special teacher that modeled the way, that challenged you by presenting a very different view of your world, very different values, and made you wonder is this teacher okay? That's what freedom is all about."
The graduates, Donate said, were given "the opportunity to attend a community college that by design encourages debate and empowers you to be critical of the world around you, empowers you to question, and also to find solutions."
She urged students to "hang on to that wonderful knowledge and use those skills to become a strong minded, civic minded member of our community. Advocate for justice, advocate for the underdogs, for those who don't have privilege, put it into social action. All your required knowledge will set you free."
A quote by Dr. Wayne Dyer hit the point home. "Think about your intangible abundance of health, joy, kindness, love, of inner peace, and seek ways to offer those glorious feelings to those who can benefit from your bounty."
Donate, who is retiring this year, shared her parting words. "So, my dear students, never, ever forget to pay it forward and never forget those who came before you. All shall be well."
The deans of each division then read the names of the students who were granted diplomas, certificates and degrees, followed by Dr. Erickson encouraging grads watching at home to move the tassel on their caps from the right to the left, signifying they were now NCC alumni.
Graduating student Juanita Shockley sang the National Anthem before the ceremony began, and it ended with Erica Dickson singing the NCC alma mater, "Oh Northampton," with music and lyrics by Mario Acerra, professor of radio/TV, who accompanied her via Zoom on the piano, and Carlo Acerra, adjunct professor of communications, playing bass.
Congratulations to all NCC graduates!