By Bill Parry
Students at LaGuardia Community College have to work much harder than the average collegian, according to the school’s president. And that makes graduation day more of a crowning achievement than at other institutions.
More than 1,500 graduates celebrated earning their associate’s degree at their 44th Commencement Monday with over 10,000 people, including friends and family, filling the Quad at Queens College in Flushing. The commuter campus of LaGuardia Community College lacks a space large enough for such an event.
“Having the graduation at Queens College was fitting because of the synergies between our two colleges, as sister CUNY institutions located in the proud borough of Queens,” LaGuardia Community College President Dr. Gail Mellow said. “As well, LaGuardia graduates often transfer to Queens College to pursue their bachelor’s of graduate degrees, so it was beautifully symbolic to mark their send-off at a college where many may attend in the future.”
Mellow, the leader of the college since 2000, inherited one of the most ethnically diverse campuses in the nation with nearly 50,000 students, two-thirds of whom are now new Americans. The students at LaGuardia face a unique challenge in that the majority have family incomes of less than $25,000 per year.
“Many had to balance caring for their children or working, often full time or several part-time jobs, while attending classes and completing coursework, making this achievement especially meaningful for them,” Mellow said. “It was wonderful to celebrate their hard work with those who are dear to them, as well as with our faculty and staff who helped guide our graduates towards their degrees and the next chapters of their lives.”
Like Ridgewood’s Sabina Trunfel, 22, who earned her degree in social science despite her pregnancy during the last semester.
“I was tired all the time, but I had the support of my teachers and they got me through it,” she said.
Destiny Mantos, 21, of the Bronx, chose LaGuardia because of its diverse student body and worked multiple retail jobs to earn her degree in psychology.
“The way the world is now you need a degree or you are going nowhere,” she said.
And Ozone Park’s Saul Delcid, 19, who worked two jobs while earning his business administration degree.
“I went to John Adams High School and I didn’t get the best education there,” he said. “I really had to put my mind to it and I got it done.”
And there was the 2016 Class Speaker Rachel Chambers, who moved to the United States from Jamaica at age 16 to pursue her education, and credited LaGuardia’s Young Adult Internship Program for encouraging her to enroll at the school.
“Many of us here have struggled, cried for either sadness or happiness, pushed ourselves beyond the limits we thought we had and with all of that came growth,” Chambers said. “All of you are in this audience today and now you are graduates of LaGuardia Community College. We continue to break the stereotype against community college students because our success is immeasurable, and we know the changes we will continue to make.”
Chambers received her degree in liberal arts. She will attend Emory University in the fall on a full scholarship.
Borough President Melinda Katz, who allocated $2.75 million to LaGuardia programs, delivered the keynote address.
“We, in Queens, are 130 languages. We hail from over 120 countries. We are the most diverse location on the planet,” Katz said. “Many of you are the first in your families to earn a degree in higher education. And there are people all over the world saving and sacrificing just to get the chance to educate their children right where you are sitting today.”
Yan Chen, 32, moved from China to Flushing three years ago and after a year learning English she enrolled at LaGuardia. On Monday she clutched her accounting degree and reflected.
“At first I was very hesitant. I didn’t know if I could achieve my goals, but they have such a supportive faculty here,” Chen said. “They prepare students for a higher education. I’m transferring to Baruch for my next challenge. LaGuardia is very good for an immigrant starting a new life in America.”
Viguens Louis, a 21-year-old, chose LaGuardia over six other colleges coming out of Hillcrest High School in Jamaica.
“I came here because my girlfriend at the time was going to LaGuardia,” Louis said. “I played six instruments and thought they had a music program, but it’s just for recording so I switched to acting. It got me a scholarship to Dean College in Massachusetts. Yes, I took a strange path, but I’m really excited to see where in leads me.”
The former girlfriend also graduated, as did Derek Atson out of Queens Vocational High School in Long Island City. The 21-year-old already had a full time job with Plumbers Local One but went to night school to please his mother.
“I just wanted to make her happy,” he said.
His mother, Tara was standing nearby, smiling with pride.
“He’s the first one in our family to earn a degree,” she said. “I was so impressed with him it inspired me to enroll at LaGuardia. I just finished my first year in travel and tourism.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr