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Students from all walks of life graduate from Three Rivers Community College in virtual ceremony

More than 400 graduates from Three Rivers Community College were celebrated on Saturday in a virtual commencement ceremony.

The prerecorded ceremony combined video montages of students learning, online profiles of graduates, speeches and video footage of in-person events held earlier this month where each graduate — from this year and last year — was able to walk across a stage dressed in their cap and gown.

Although the college gave students the opportunity to walk in a traditional commencement-like ceremony on May 7, the soon-to-be graduates couldn’t bring along their family members or friends because of the COVID-19 pandemic and didn’t receive their diplomas that day. Students were invited to pick up their diplomas this past week in a drive-thru processional.

The roughly 450 students officially graduated on Saturday during the online ceremony where faculty and staff members read every graduate's name, and families and friends were welcome to log on and watch. Graduates included several high school students who earned their associate degrees while still in high school, a 74-year-old, a single mother, a father-and-son duo and nine valedictorians — the highest number of honorees the school has ever had.

Though the ceremony — the 56th annual commencement for Three Rivers — wasn’t what most students likely expected of their college graduation, faculty and staff said they were committed to honoring every student who persevered through the pandemic to earn their degree or certificate.

“Graduates of the Class of 2021, I recognize this is not the graduation you dreamed about with family and friends cheering you on as you walked across the stage,” said Mary Ellen Jukoski, president of Three Rivers Community College, who recognized that many members of the class were first-generation college graduates.

Jukoski said the school was honored to celebrate students who come “from all walks of life, each with your own unique story,” and highlighted the stories of a few students who overcame obstacles to earn their diplomas this month, including a single mother of three who worked full-time while attending school and a student who was pursuing a career in human services after suffering from substance use disorder and being incarcerated.

Jukoski applauded the resilience of every graduate who achieved their academic goals while surviving a global pandemic that drastically changed their learning experience.

“As a class you have shown resilience and strength to complete your courses when the year was disrupted by the pandemic,” she said. “You faced the challenge of remote learning with perseverance and an unwavering resolve so that you could make your graduation today a reality.”

Allen Lyon, vice president of student government, graduated with an associate degree in environmental engineering technology and delivered the student address for the virtual ceremony. He shared the struggles he endured as he and his classmates pivoted to online learning during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has challenged me in ways I could have never imagined, it has challenged all of us,” Lyon said. “I went from seeing my Three Rivers friends and studying with them to being locked in my house and going it alone; I went from seeing my Three Rivers professors face to face to watching them glitch on (video calls).”

Despite its challenges, he said the pandemic forced him to value things he took for granted and give himself more credit for what he was capable of.

“We have our cap and gown and I realize now that if COVID can’t stop us from achieving our goals, nothing can,” the graduate said.

Three Rivers has students from a wide variety of backgrounds and ages, providing many an education they might not be able to get otherwise.

David Medina, 53, graduated with his general studies associate degree, after getting his construction management certificate from Three Rivers in 2012 and then taking classes on and off and part time. He graduated with his son.

Medina said that growing up in a rough neighborhood in New Jersey, he was told he’d never amount to anything, and he accepted that as a part of life. But he saw joining the U.S. Marine Corps as a way out, and his experience in the Marines from 1986 to 1990 showed him he could go to college.

“That’s why I pushed my kids to go, and that’s why I wanted to finish, to show them you could go and you can go,” he said.

Medina, who has mostly been working in carpentry since, said he went to college in his 20s but didn’t finish, as he needed to put his kids and his job first. Unfortunately, he then lost a lot of credits moving from New Jersey to Connecticut; he now lives in Norwich.

“It’s a long journey,” he said, and he credits his wife with pushing him to finish.

Grace Carlos, 21, said she is grateful she went to Three Rivers because it allowed her to figure out what she wanted to do: She entered as an engineering science major but realized she wasn’t passionate about it, and she was easily able to change her major to liberal arts and sciences.

“I probably would not have been able to do that at a four-year school, because that’s a lot of money to just change your major around,” she said with a laugh. Carlos is sticking around to take four more classes to get a CSCU Pathway degree in political science, meaning she’ll have two associate degrees.

She then wants to transfer to a four-year school to get her bachelor’s degree in political science. She said her interest in political science arose from working in the president’s office at Three Rivers, which involved interacting with elected officials.

The Montville student helped with the campaigns of Democratic state legislature candidates Baird Welch-Collins and Matt Geren last year, organized a gathering in Montville in July to encourage civic engagement among young people, and interned in the office of Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz in the fall.

Nine students were named as valedictorian on Saturday for their exemplary academic performance this year, which included completing all of their program requirements while maintaining a 4.0 GPA: Raleigh N. Aboy, Yamila N. Garcia, Valerie Glover, Anastasia Larionova, Katja A. Sieling, Sarah M. Walsh, Amanda E. Williams, Ara Wilnas and Paul Urbanowicz Jr.

Faculty and staff read the names of every graduate on Saturday, starting with 2020 graduates who weren’t able to walk because of the pandemic.

Jukoski and other members of the staff and faculty, including Kem Barfield, interim dean of academic and student affairs and Diba Khan-Bureau '96, chair of the faculty senate, congratulated students on their commencement and their new roles as proud alumni of the college.

Jukoski told graduates that their graduation marked a step toward changing the world.

“Your graduation is an invitation to use your education to begin to heal the afflictions of society by applying the best of what you have learned in your head and felt in your heart,” Jukoski said. “As a class you have the power to stand for healthier conditions that will create a healthier society.”

She said she hopes graduates will go on to “create more equity, more justice and more joy in the world.”

t.hartz@theday.com

e.moser@theday.com

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