Almost 950 students received diplomas from Atlantic Cape Community College on Thursday morning, cheered on by friends and family on the campus lawn.
Behind them, construction workers labored on a new building for Rutgers University, set to open in September, that will offer bachelor’s degrees for Thursday’s graduates.
“It’s cool to be a county college graduate today,” Rod Risley, executive director of the national Phi Theta Kappa community college honor society, told the graduates. “County college students are being recruited by four-year colleges because studies have shown that students who transfer from community colleges will perform as well as or better than those who started at the four-year college.”
Among those recruits is Madison Russ, 22, of Ocean City who will transfer to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall to major in communications. Editor of the Atlantic Cape Review, she is also a member of Phi Theta Kappa.
Both Atlantic Cape and Cumberland County Colleges held graduations Thursday on their campuses in Mays Landing and Vineland, awarding almost 1,600 associate degrees. For many graduates, college will continue. About 60 percent of Atlantic Cape graduates go on to a four-year college, most to Richard Stockton College, but also to Rutgers, Rowan and other colleges, according to college data.
At Cumberland’s commencement, president Thomas Isekenegbe noted that 155 students were receiving bachelor or master’s degrees from Rowan, Montclair, Wilmington, Fairleigh Dickinson and Georgian Court universities through programs offered in Vineland at the college’s University Center.
Risley said community colleges have been at the core of a national effort to prepare Americans for 21st-century jobs at an affordable cost. He praised the graduates for being smart enough to start at a community college where they would spend only about a third of what a state four-year college would cost for tuition and fees.
The graduating classes reflect the diversity of their communities. Among the youngest graduates this year will be Paul Patterson, 14, of Corbin City, who will get an associate degree from Burlington County College on Saturday. He took all his courses online while also attending high school at Westminster Christian Academy in Ocean City.
Isekenegbe noted that graduates from Cumberland ranged in age from 18 to 66 and are all races and ethnicities.
“We all come from different backgrounds,” speaker and honors graduate Melanie Leventhal, of Wildwood, told her Atlantic Cape classmates. “But we are united here today with the commonality of success.”
Susan Rivenbark, 43, graduated from Atlantic Cape with her daughter, Ashley, 20. Ashley started taking classes at Atlantic Cape while a senior at Atlantic County Institute of Technology. Susan, who postponed college to get married and start a family, decided it was time to go back. She took courses during the summer to catch up, and both she and Ashley will attend Rutgers at the new Atlantic Cape site in the fall.
Ashley admitted it was a bit odd to have her mom in some of the same classes, but it also helped to study together.
“People thought we were sisters at first,” Ashley said. Susan said Ashley helped her catch up in math and science she had forgotten. Her younger daughter Caitlin also attends Atlantic Cape, and the two kept Susan motivated.
“They were my biggest inspiration to go back, along with my mom,” Susan said. “I wanted my mom, who is 71, get to see me graduate.”
Many students were intimidated by college. James Parrish, of Vineland, chair of the Student Senate at Cumberland and recipient of its first Outstanding Student Leader award, recalled being fearful and unsure of what would be expected of him. But he got involved and found success.
“Engagement gives you the ability to take ownership of your life,” he said.
College officials acknowledged that many graduates worked and cared for families while in school, but still persevered.
Heidi Shelley, of Millville, a single mother of four, created the “I’m Committed” campaign at Cumberland to help students stay in college with the help of volunteer tutors and mentors.
New Jersey’s Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks told graduates at Cumberland that she recognizes times are challenging.
“But I believe we can rise to the occasion,” she said. “Each of us can contribute. Each of us matters.”
She encouraged graduates to imagine greatness for themselves and their communities.
Leventhal offered her own take on Atlantic Cape’s motto of providing opportunity.
“Opportunity will present itself,” she said. “Success is presenting yourself at that opportunity.”
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