Three Rivers Community College grads celebrate many paths to success
Norwich — On a picture-perfect late afternoon Wednesday, the 53rd graduation of Three Rivers Community College featured all the stories often associated with one of the state’s more affordable college choices, with students juggling school, work, family life and career changes.
“I came here for an affordable education and a flexible schedule so that I could work, study and care for my kids,” Nataliia Romanenko of Niantic, Class of 2018 valedictorian, told fellow graduates during her speech Wednesday. “I didn’t expect much from it, but I was so wrong. I am greatly impressed and deeply touched by the quality of education, faculty qualification and warm and supportive environment here.”
Romanenko received an associate degree in computer science technology Wednesday and also was one of seven graduates to receive the Medallion of Excellence for earning a 4.0 grade point average. Class Salutatorian Zaha Bush and graduates Chelsea Ahmed, Rebecca Cipriani, Allison Grills, Debra Kerby and Patrick Meagher joined her in the medallion presentation.
Among the 580 students receiving degrees and certificates Wednesday were mothers and daughters walking together, a husband and wife celebrating their third anniversary with degrees and even two high school classmates receiving associate degrees before they get their high school diplomas.
That was the case for Jaeden Spitale, 17, of Baltic and Alexi Switz, 17, of Stonington. The two were classmates not only at Three Rivers Community College but also at the Three Rivers Middle College High School on the same campus. The high school for 11th- and 12th-graders offers the chance to earn dozens of credits toward college degrees during high school studies.
Spitale and Switz took it a step further by graduating from college Wednesday with associate degrees in general studies one month before they will graduate from high school. Spitale said he was under a bit of sibling pressure, because his sister, Madison Spitale-Hansen, did the same two years earlier at Three Rivers.
Both plan to remain classmates in the honors program at the University of Connecticut in Storrs in the fall. Spitale will bring 57 credits with him to UConn to study environmental sciences in preparation for a law degree, and Switz will start her biomedical engineering studies with a goal of becoming a medical doctor with 69 credits already in hand.
“I’m saving two years of college for zero dollars!” Spitale said Wednesday.
Melissa Girardin, 21, of Preston didn’t have to look far to find her mother in the overflow crowd on the Three Rivers green Wednesday. Mom, Nancy Girardin, 51, would be marching to the stage with her to get her associate degree in nursing.
The younger Girardin earned her associate degree in accounting and already has two jobs in the field, including one at her father, Dennis Girardin’s Broad Brook Heating & Cooling in Jewett City. Melissa Girardin isn’t done, though. She plans to go to Eastern Connecticut State University to pursue a degree as a certified public accountant.
Her mother, too, is putting her new degree to use, working at Bride Brook Health & Rehabilitation Center in Niantic. Nancy Girardin said she has been going to Three Rivers part time for the past seven years, while Melissa, a 2015 Norwich Free Academy graduate, told her mom she would “hurry up” to complete her studies so they could graduate together.
Three Rivers President Mary Ellen Jukoski highlighted several such stories Wednesday, asking graduates to stand as she announced their accomplishments.
Heather and Adam Dyer were married on May 23, 2015, Jukoski said. “As Heather says, ‘We will both be celebrating our third year anniversary today by walking down the aisle again once more, but this time to get our associate degrees.’”
The youngest graduate Wednesday was Christopher Annino, 16, with an associate degree in applied sciences in construction management. Gary Tobias, 68, was the oldest, with an associate degree in science in hospitality.
“Today I speak to all our graduates and say, this is your day to celebrate your commitment to learning,” Jukoski said, “the effort and dedication you invested to pursue your education, and your perseverance to make this day possible.”
Keynote speaker Matt Fleury, president and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Science Center and chairman of the state Board of Regents for Higher Education, told graduates his own winding career road that started with a degree in theater arts from Berkshire Community College in Massachusetts. From there, he pursued careers in broadcasting, communications, management and finally business, with a degree from the University of Connecticut.
Fleury lamented that community colleges are often looked down on as the poor sisters of higher education. He told Three Rivers graduates they should expect and demand respect and then turned his voice beyond the green, to Washington, D.C.
“Hello!” he shouted. “These people have jobs! These people have families! ... They should get respect!”
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