I attended St. Louis Community College's commencement Saturday. We were in the Scottrade Center. The arena was a well-lit and happy place. The names of each STLCC campus continuously circled on the electric sign that ringed the arena ceiling. Each campus' name rested in the background of its official color: Wildwood (orange), Forest Park (red), Florissant Valley (blue) and Meramec (green).
At 11 a.m. sharp, the graduates, along with faculty (including me), staff and administrators entered the arena in a procession. Most were dressed in black robes and black mortarboard caps. The students' cap tassels were in the colors of their home campuses. We sat in chairs that were placed in rows on the floor of the arena. Family members and friends of the graduates were in the stands above us. There were smiles, hoots and shouts all around.
More than 2,800 degrees and certificates were conferred on Saturday. STLCC Chancellor Zelema Harris and Vice Chancellor Donna Dare welcomed graduates, their families, faculty and staff. U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. gave the commencement speech.
Representative Clay and STLCC Chancellor Zelema Harris reminded us of President Obama's initiative to help more Americans attain college degrees by the year 2020. The president recently said that community colleges provide a "gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life." The success of this initiative is rooted in the professionalism of the educators (faculty, staff and administrators) of American community colleges who serve as teachers, mentors, counselors, advisors and coaches to the millions of students on our campuses.
Educator roles at community colleges differ from the requirements of four-year university positions. Because community colleges offer an open door to students of all levels of ability with varying schedules and time constraints, community college educators develop instructional techniques and curricula to not only teach and inspire, but to help students adjust to the college environment and develop a personal connection to the campuses.
Many community college students are, like I was, first generation college students who are not familiar with study skills and time management skills that are needed to attain a college degree. Unlike four-year university freshmen and sophomores who may live on or near campus and are supported while in school, community college students are often already working in the community. Some are supporting their families as they pursue a degree. Our students may face personal obstacles that rest in issues of family choices, poverty, and immigration; however, this is not always the case. Many other students with wider financial and educational options have made the wise choice to forgo spending large amounts of tuition at four-year universities in lieu of pursuing their general transfer degree or upgrading their professional skills at a local community college.
The STLCC graduates were a diverse group. I was glad to see students who had been in my class, and who I had met at campus events. Muslim women in hijab walked across the stage, along with others of varied backgrounds and abilities. I marveled at how so many individual hopes and dreams brought us all to that place for that day. I imagined a distant observer watching humanity from somewhere out in time and space as we go about our lives.
We sometimes pull together to pause in groups—in the classroom, the workplace, or commencement exercises. At other times we slowly move in tandem on crowded freeways, And we also rush. We rush in separate directions and we rush at each other in fits of emotion and competition. It must seem that we ebb and flow in response to some strange, offbeat energy pulse. Then suddenly, like an eddy in a stream, we pull together again to celebrate, to reflect or to pray, and then we move on.
But no one who attends STLCC disappears into the woodwork. Most students move on to fulfilling careers and lives. When I was in cancer treatment, several of my nurses and other medical technicians were either enrolled at STLCC for professional development or had graduated one of STLCC's Allied Health programs.
Friends of mine have earned associate degrees in business, general transfer and teacher education from STLCC. As if to drive this point home, my children and I went shopping after commencement, and I encountered two former students who were also out enjoying their day. STLCC students and graduates are everywhere. It is wonderful to find them again, and converse and enhance our bond as community members.
Education shapes our community. As community college educators, we offer the knowledge of our disciplines, and we encourage development of personal opinions and values. We teach industry standards. We also encourage students to evaluate the multiple perspectives of others, which fosters classroom experiences that strengthen the foundations of our democracy.
Most of all, we encourage students to become self-directed, lifelong learners, which will be the ultimate determiner of their success in life. All of this and more is based on state educational goals, industry needs and our own hope for the future. Through our graduate work, research and classroom assessments, we continue to enhance our own knowledge so we can facilitate the learning of others. We pursue grants to help more students succeed, we have weekend worries about specific students and their struggles, and we know they can achieve their goals.
Community college educators possess an eternal optimism that each student can succeed. We help the door to achievement remain open to anyone who wants a chance, or in some cases a second or third chance. Students come to us with this optimism or they come to us seeking to develop it. We do our best to support their goals and we love to see them pass through the doorway at graduation. This can only be good for our city, our state, our country and our world.