From ages 17 to 69, students from all walks of life graduate from Three Rivers
Norwich — Amber De Souza's household became one with three virtual students when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, as she woke up hours before her kids and stayed awake hours past their bedtime to maintain her own schooling at Three Rivers Community College.
"The days were full, exhausting and yet purposeful," said De Souza, 31. "Filled with determination to achieve my aspirations and with two little boys looking up to me, I rose to the occasion. I knew that because of them, nothing is impossible."
As the student speaker at Three Rivers' commencement Wednesday evening, she told fellow graduates she stood there not only because of the love she has for her children, but also because of a great loss: Her youngest brother died from lymphoma a few years ago at age 18, inspiring her to pursue a nursing career. De Souza got her first degree at Three Rivers in December and has been accepted into the nursing program.
At Three Rivers this year, there are 465 graduates receiving degrees and certificates, with 11 people receiving two degrees each and seven people getting a degree and a certificate.
The graduates range in age from 17 — Three Rivers Middle College Magnet High School student Alayna Woodhams got her associate degree in general studies and a library technology certificate — to 69. Many of the graduates are the first in their families to go to college.
"When I look around at my fellow graduates, I feel so fortunate to be amongst such a diverse student body," De Souza said. "I see students that come from all walks of life and all phases of life. What a magnificent sight to be seen."
College President Mary Ellen Jukoski shared some of those stories.
Philip Burns served in the Navy for 11 years and is graduating with a degree in construction technology, after keeping up with his classes and those of his five sons while his wife was away on military orders.
Rida Fatima came to the U.S. from Pakistan in 2017, took all online classes at Three Rivers, and will now pursue a bachelor's degree in accounting.
Student Government Association President Lorenzo Enderle said he wasn't there to speak of graduates' resilience, but "to that voice at the back of our heads that doesn't listen when others praise how strong we were to have made it this far. It is worthy of love. You are worthy of love, and not because you succeeded in so many places where others fell, but because some part of you insisted that your story did not end there."
The college also recognized five recipients of medallions of academic excellence, who have a 4.0 grade point average and met degree requirements: Ariel Babbitt, Lilia Burdo, Bellana Parungao, Stacey Smith and Sarah Van Walkenburg.
A 'surreal' moment
In talking the day before commencement about their journeys to this point, Gwen Oppert of East Killingly and Geré Johnson of New London said graduating is "surreal."
"It's been a really long road to get there," said Oppert, 39, who is getting an associate degree in nursing 20 years after first starting her education. She started at the University of Rhode Island right out of high school, but pregnant and in need of a job, she started working as a certified nursing assistant. This sparked her interest in doing more in nursing.
Oppert — who now has three children: a 19-year-old and 9-year-old twins — then moved to Washington state, came to Connecticut and started at Three Rivers in 2006, and then moved to Georgia before coming back. When the pandemic hit, she was working on an ambulance as an EMT.
It "was super scary, because you're the first one walking into these houses and you don't know what to do and you don't know what to expect," Oppert said. "It was very mentally challenging."
She expects to get her bachelor's degree in nursing from Charter Oak State College in December 2023 and then plans to get her master's. From her experience as a homebirth midwife and having a lot of friends who are gender nonbinary or have transitioned, her goal is to provide care "to all bodies and all genders."
Johnson, 23, is graduating with a degree in environmental engineering technology and headed to the University of Connecticut in the fall to study agriculture and natural resources.
The Philadelphia native knew in high school she wanted to study marine sciences, so she ended up at UConn Avery Point. After two and a half years there, she took a break for mental health reasons.
Through a fellowship in Philly, she was surprised to learn there was a farm near where she lived and developed a passion for agriculture and urban farming. She wants to travel the country helping farms owned by people of color be more sustainable and more engaged with the community.
For a gallery of more photos from the ceremony, click here.