Each year I have the privilege of presiding over CCBC’s Graduation Ceremony held under a massive tent on the lawn of our Essex campus. With a capacity to hold 5,000, the tent overflowed with guests gathered to honor and celebrate their very own graduate, often the first in the family to earn a college degree.  Grandmothers, babies, moms, dads and significant others — dressed in their finest – created a vast sea of smiling faces while colorful balloons, flowers and joyous shouts awaited the favored graduate primed to walk boldly across the stage.  Pride and joy literally beam forward from this huge audience to the graduates seated up front in their honored place of pride.

Commencement is the high point of our academic year. College crews spend countless hours mowing, painting, scrubbing, mulching—all in preparation for this “best day of the year” for any academic community.  Although just under 1,000 graduates actually walked across the stage on June 1, CCBC had a record number of graduates this year – 3,249.  In terms of impact, that number translates into hundreds more nurses, teachers, artists, computer technicians and scientists who join the hundreds of thousands of well-educated graduates from all disciplines who have walked across the CCBC stage over the past six decades.  Since data show that 95 percent of CCBC graduates will remain to live and work right in their home communities, these graduates leave the Commencement stage and return to their neighborhoods ready to get jobs, buy houses, pay taxes, send their children to local schools and join the PTA.   What better return on investment could any county or state wish for?

One of the best things about a community college graduation is that these smart, savvy graduates and their families, by-and-large, have earned credentials that make most of them immediately employable, even if they also plan to transfer first to a four year institution.  Unlike so many of their four-year counterparts, they have finished the first two years of their college education without a mountain of debt.  In the short run, their newly earned associate degree allows them to get a job, buy a motorcycle or rent an apartment.  In the long run, that associate degree will add close to a half-million dollars to their lifetime earnings.  This is a credential they can take to the bank, not just hang on the wall!

For all of us who have helped prepare these graduates to take this final trek across the CCBC stage, their “commencement” is our affirmation that the work we do every day has real meaning.  And graduating 3,249 students mean that we have done that work well.  The associate degree adds tremendous value to the lives of these graduates and their families, whether it leads to transferring to a four-year partner to earn a bachelor’s degree or moving directly into the world of work — thwarting hackers, managing construction sites or prepping operating rooms.  Whatever their next step, we are proud that a CCBC education has prepared them to be the “citizen soldiers” of this 21st century, part of a technologically literate, yet humane citizenry, able to thrive and not just survive in the world.

The best moment of any Commencement ceremony, of course, is the one at which the graduates are instructed to reach up to move their mortarboard tassels from left to right, officially conferring their degrees.  At this point wild cheers of joy, relief and celebration erupt from both the graduates and their 5,000 supporters stretched across the massive tent.  These families have surrounded their graduate with love and support for as many years as it took to achieve the degree.  This day is everyone’s victory.  My traditional injunction to all CCBC graduates…and indeed to all graduates everywhere…is, in the gentle words of novelist Elie Wiesel, “Go, my friends, and make small miracles!”  In achieving this milestone, they are very well poised to do just that!