It was an evening marked by warm emotions and expressions of gratitude as Mercer County Community College’s (MCCC’s) James Kerney Campus (JKC) in Trenton recognized 80 students who successfully completed programs to advance and enhance their lives.
The 31st annual Celebration of Academic Achievement was held at the Trenton War Memorial on June 3. Participating students were enrolled in MCCC’s Career Training Institute, English Language Institute, High School Equivalency, and Trenton Makes programs and received certificates of completion in their respective areas of study.
Dr. Tonia Conley, dean for the James Kerney Campus, welcomed the graduates and their proud family members. Also in attendance were Mercer administrators, instructors, and staff.
In her opening remarks, MCCC President Dr. Jianping Wang said, “It is incredibly inspiring and uplifting to recognize those who have accomplished great things against many odds.”
Noting that these graduates were achieving their goals on alternative timelines, Dr. Wang said, “It doesn’t matter where you start, it matters where you finish. It matters that you have a dream and that you have perseverance. It’s not luck or fate. It’s hard work and a belief in yourself.”
The guest speaker for the event was Brad Butler II, an MCCC alumnus. Butler shared his challenging road to his current role as an author, mentor and motivational speaker. He spent his early years in Jersey City, growing up in difficult circumstances. After moving to Mercer County as a teen, he attended a local high school where he was placed in special education classes because he was behind academically.
After he enrolled at MCCC, life began to take a turn for the better. He remembers getting a poor grade on his first English paper, despite working on it day and night. “My professor told me to go to the Learning Center and work with a tutor. I did that,” he said, proudly adding that he went from needing a tutor to eventually becoming a peer tutor for fellow students.
Butler gave high marks to the Educational Opportunity Fund program, of which he was a member. “Without them, I would not be here,” he said. “Mercer gave me chances when other places wouldn’t. It truly does take a village. I needed every one of you.”
Butler’s heartfelt comments were followed by student speakers. The Career Training Institute (CTI) was represented by Kenya Spaine, who was full of gratitude for what she learned through CTI’s Administrative Specialist program. Noting that despite being in the workforce for years, she has had very little computer training. “Earning a certificate in MS Office Suite has increased my self-confidence and my resume,” she said. ”Now I have the confidence to seek employment and perhaps become an employer. I am appreciative of the amazing staff and I want to thank all of them.”
The English Language Institute, which recognized 33 students, was represented by Floridalma Samayoa. Originally from Guatemala, she said she attended classes with people from many countries, all with the goal to improve their English. “I need this to go to the doctor, to help my children with homework. I hope to go to college,” she explained, adding a poignant message to her classmates. “I am so proud of all of you. Please do not give up. Keep on going.”
The High School Equivalency program, which graduated 25 students, was represented by Gabriel Cruz. “The road to this moment wasn’t easy. I am the oldest of seven brothers and sisters. In school, I wasn’t a perfect student. I procrastinated.” He noted that his education was further interrupted after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, when he traveled to the island to help out family members.
“I am the first in my family to graduate high school and I am about to head to the U.S. Army,” he said proudly, advising fellow students to “go after what you want in life.”
The final speaker was Lashaye Fleming, who graduated from the Trenton Makes Program (TMP), which helps young people ages 18 to 24 earn their high school diplomas while also completing community service projects. Fleming was among 16 students completing the program.
Fleming noted that she had enrolled in TMP before but couldn’t make it stick. She finally recognized that earning her diploma was an absolute necessity. “Something clicked in my head. I started putting my mind to work,” she said.
Following the students was speaker Peggy Gould, the assistant director for all four programs. “Thanks to each and every one of you for your spirit and dedication. It was a pleasure to watch. You are poised to start the next chapter armed with new knowledge and goals. Continue to set goals, take risks and overcome detours. Take that enthusiasm and use it to change the world,” Gould said.
Vice President for Student Affairs Diane Campbell closed out the ceremony. “The community will benefit from the way you go about making change. We are happy that you have begun this journey at Mercer. We wish you great things as you take the next steps into your future.”