Published May 31. 2014 5:35PM Updated May 31. 2014 11:40PM
New London — A class of non-traditional students — some working three part-time jobs while going to college, others raising families while completing their studies — walked the floor of the Garde Arts Center auditorium Saturday afternoon.
Family members shouted out “I love you,” “Congratulations,” and “Mommy,” as their loved ones picked up their associated degree diploma or certificate and were greeted by outgoing Three Rivers Community College President Grace S. Jones, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and state Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz.
“I feel amazing,” said 22-year-old Irina Michel of Sprague. “I finally did it.”
She is an English as a Second Language graduate who immigrated to the U.S. from the Ukraine when she was adopted in 2005 at age 12.
“Coming to America and then going to college was kind of like having an amazing experience — of getting more friends and everything and getting to study in college,” Michel said.
It took Michel three years to complete her associate degree in General Studies because she had to complete pre-requisite English courses and was working full-time at Mohegan Sun casino as a security worker and a hostess. Before Three Rivers, she said she had never worked a job and wasn’t even sure she wanted to go to college. But the community college helped her get her first job, build friendships and plan for a future. She hopes to attend Central Connecticut State University or Eastern Connecticut State University to earn a bachelor’s degree in education and become a math teacher.
In all, 604 students graduated Saturday.
Another ambitious graduate, 20-year-old Rubson Guimaraes of Waterford, juggled three part-time jobs — cleaning homes, cleaning offices and catering — and earned an associate degree in Architectural Design Technology and a certificate in Sustainable Facilities Management in three years.
Three Rivers “was good. It was a lot more focused,” he said. “I know a lot of friends that go to bigger schools, that go to four-year schools, and they stay on campus and everything. They have a lot more distractions. For me it’s always work, school, work, school, work, school, that’s it.”
Even after graduation, Guimaraes was headed to work and his parents were going to celebrate without him. He said he is headed to the University of Connecticut to earn a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture and hopes to earn a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Massachusetts or Roger Williams University.
Blumenthal gave special congratulations to the students who worked or raised a family while pursing a degree, as well as the veterans.
“Our freedom is never free, and our veterans are the ones who have served and sacrificed,” Blumenthal said.
He said veterans had given him the freedom to speak Saturday and the freedom for the students to do as they wished later that day.
“I am not going to ask you what you are going to be doing tonight to celebrate, but you have that freedom,” he said.
Schwartz gave the commencement address and told students to “challenge the status quo” and to “speak the truth.”
Schwartz, a registered nurse, the first woman to serve as the commissioner of the state Department of Veterans Affairs and a disabled Air Force veteran, told the packed auditorium about an aircraft accident she survived in which one of the hatches blew off and she escaped from being sucked out of the plane. She sustained serious injuries including a “blast concussion” but refused to listen to the doctors who told her to go home, be with her husband and “bake bread.”
“From that experience and ultimately the rest of my life, I have learned to have a life I wanted, not the life someone told me I could have,” Schwartz said.
Blumenthal gave Jones, who will be ending her term as president of the community college at the end of the month, a “certificate of recognition” from the U.S. Senate.
Jones congratulated the graduates and thanked them for their determination.
“Whether you continue to seek another degree immediately or continue your professional work or seek a new job, I am certain that there will be a sense of accomplishment and a vision of a new day,” Jones said.