On graduation day, students celebrate 'The Mitchell Effect'

New London — Graduate Ben Akselrod called it "The Mitchell Effect."

That is the transformational impact the four-year liberal arts college on the Thames River has on its students. For Akselrod, of Pleasantville, N.Y., that meant "opening up my mind and assisting me in becoming who I was meant to be, and finding my way."

Akselrod, one of two student speakers to address his 170-plus classmates at Mitchell College's graduation Saturday, first went through the Thames college transition program on Mitchell's campus, before going on to major in business administration, and get involved with the student government.

The second speaker, Cole Sargent, of Waterford, also went through a transformation.

"When I began here at Mitchell College, I entered this community as Cassie, an anxious and scared individual," Sargent said.

His decision to come out as a transgender male while a student at Mitchell, while "ultimately positive," was not easy, he said, noting it was much more than a choice to change his name.

"It is my hope that sharing my story will encourage each of you to make the choice to share yourself with the world, even the parts you are afraid will bring judgment," he said. "....Twenty-one years on this earth and it is here, at Mitchell College, that I made the choice to speak my truth."

The 173 members of the Class of 2018 graduated on the College Green under a tent as rain fell slowly. Of the graduates, 25 received associate degrees and 148 got their bachelors.

As they walked in to "Pomp and Circumstance," their loved ones held their phones high in the air to snap pictures and videos, even standing on chairs at times to get a better view of the graduates.

Ten family members of graduate Morgan Breakiron wore matching gray shirts to the ceremony that said "Way to go Morgie." Breakiron's mother, Kathie, of Wayne, Penn., had the shirts made so the family would stand out, and to embarrass her daughter, she quipped.

Morgan, seeking a small college, visited Mitchell in February of her senior year of high school, her mother said, and on the train ride home she said "this is it."

The keynote speaker, Georgette Chapman Phillips, dean of the College of Business and Economics at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, detailed how after being diagnosed with an auto-immune condition that attacked her joints, she decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with her husband.

The auto immune disorder resolved itself after six months, but Phillips' doctors told her it would probably come back, and if it did, they couldn't guarantee that it would go away again.

"So I thought to myself if I was never going to walk again, what do I want to do today?" she said. "The answer was I needed a world class experience, you know, one of those things that will start your obituary: 'She climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.'"

It's one of her most satisfying accomplishments, she said, and she shared the experience with the graduates, "to remind you that you have something inside of you that you can pull out to become your superhero."

College President Janet Steinmayer singled out respective students for their achievements and leadership, like two Mitchell baseball players who went, on their own accord, to visit a player from the opposing team in the hospital after he was hit in the eye with a ball and risked losing his eye.

The graduates' ended their time at Mitchell like they started it, with bell ringing. This time, the bell was rung 18 times for the Class of 2018.

j.bergman@theday.com

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