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Messages of triumph over obstacles at Mitchell College commencement


New London — Drizzling rain abated just in time for nearly 200 new graduates of Mitchell College to receive their diplomas during the commencement ceremony Saturday morning.

As the sun attempted to burn through an overcast sky, commencement speakers standing at a podium under a tent on the college green told stories of triumph over obstacles and the importance of the quality of adaptability.

The college bestowed diplomas to 181 graduates, according to the college’s director of communications Kathryn Gaffney. Of the 15 who received associate’s degrees, one also received a bachelor’s; the remainder all received bachelor’s degrees, she said.

The ceremony doubled as an inauguration for the college’s seventh president Janet L. Steinmayer, who started her position in July 2014. Steinmayer is the founder and chief executive officer of Appleseed Food Frontiers, a marketing and consulting company that serves artisanal food companies.

Christopher F. McKeon, who gave the student address, said in his speech that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor as an infant. Doctors thought he would not be able to talk or walk – and now he is working to achieve his goal of becoming a sportscaster.

“A lot of our accomplishments were not expected,” he told his classmates. McKeon received a bachelor’s in sports communication.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has sat on the college’s board, spoke about his own struggles with dyslexia. He said that when he started as an undergraduate at Boston College, he listened to his textbooks on tape because he could not read fast enough to keep up with his classes.

“Don’t ever give up on your selves, graduates,” he said, likening himself to the many students at Mitchell who have learning disorders.

Mitchell College is nationally known for its academic support programs that support individual learning differences.

Steinmayer spoke in her address of Mitchell’s role since its founding in the 1930s in expanding access to education in the region. She said the college held a special place in the history of promoting egalitarianism and accessibility in the U.S. education system.

“Use your ability to adapt to follow any path that incites your curiosity,” said the new college president, who has served on boards at other educational institutions that work with children and young adults with special learning needs.

Learning disabilities are not the only challenges teachers, administrators, students and graduates spoke about.

Jonathan Atkinson, who will begin his senior year at the college in the fall, said as he watched his classmates graduate that he had taken a year-and-a-half off from school for financial reasons.

“I have a lot of friends up there. I’m very happy for them,” said the communications major from Bay Shore, New York, who said he “can’t wait” to cross the stage himself in a year.

Dazjavia Z. Williams, an intern to the college president, mentioned in her address that she had seen classmates complete their degrees as new parents. Williams, of Naugatuck, graduated with a bachelor’s in criminal justice.

The ceremony was emotional for family and friends of graduates as well.

“I won’t be able to talk about it — I’ll start crying,” said Robin Harsh, whose 22-year-old daughter Cara Begley, of South Windham, was graduating with a bachelor’s of science in psychology.

Begley’s friend Luis Guzman, standing with Harsh in the seating available outside the tent, said his friend had inspired him to finish his associate’s degree. He expects to complete the degree at Quinebaug Valley Community College in a year.

“She’s amazing. She did it,” he said.

A full list of all 2015 graduates, including a roundup of graduates from southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island, can be found here.

Twitter: @ConnecticuTess


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