06/07/2013 11:35 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

Words of Wisdom From a Community College Commencement

Commencement ceremonies are celebratory and often emotional events. I would put forth that community college commencements are particularly moving. Why? For many of our students, the community college was the second chance -- or perhaps the only chance -- at higher education. The words of two of our student speakers exemplify this truth, and I wanted to share excerpts with you. I wanted to end with words from our commencement speaker, Mr. Norman Augustine, who is not only a visionary business leader, but also a true friend of community colleges and higher education.

First, an excerpt from student Joel Sati's remarks:

My journey to Montgomery College starts on Sunday September 19, 2010. I was in tears, not because someone had died that day, but my dreams did - or it sure felt that way. Finding out that I was undocumented while applying to colleges made me feel that the doors to my dreams were forever closed based on factors that had nothing to do with my grades or intellectual promise.

Having successfully come through a bleak period in my life, I have learned that success is not just about determination; it is also about self-worth. Being successful here was more than just doing whatever I set my mind to; I also had to believe that I had a mind worth putting forth. I have learned that success manifests itself in the journey, and the key to a successful journey requires that I strive. Strive not to just attain knowledge but to advance it. Strive to spend every second of my consciousness raising the consciousness of others. Most importantly, success demands that I strive for excellence - only in improving upon myself could I become a positive force in my community.

My dream in life is to be a college professor. As a future educator I see success as a self-sustaining concept, which manifests itself through driven individuals who seek to equip their community with the tools to develop their own definitions of the term. While my colleagues and I were marching [for Maryland's Dream Act] in Baltimore's unforgiving heat this past July, there was a chant which goes "el pueblo, unido, jamas será vencido" - a people, united, will never be defeated. In that instant, I learned that an educated people are a successful people, because each person not only had the tools to define success, but the determination to equip others with the same.

And an excerpt from student James Hazelrig:

My journey at Montgomery College began July 11, 2011, the first day of the first class I took here and I never dreamed I would be recognized for my academic achievements. All I could think about was how terrified I was of failing yet again.

This was not the first time I had been down the college road; 12 years ago I attended a prestigious engineering program. While I had every intention of completing my degree, I lacked the discipline and maturity to balance academics with the social side of the college experience. Unable to overcome academic disaster, I dropped out of college.

In the years since then I have spent every day trying to better myself. I have gotten married, held managerial positions both for a small business and a large federal contractor, transformed my debt into retirement accounts and the down payment for my first house, and in the spring of last year I became a father.

This brings me back to that first day of class here at MC. I made a pact with myself; this time I would not fail because I did not show up to class- this time I would not fail because I did not put time in. It's interesting to me that at 20 I had no responsibility and couldn't manage even a C average, yet at 30, working two part-time jobs while full time parenting, I have found the focus and discipline that allowed me to make the Dean's List five times and maintain a 4.0 gpa for 70 new credits toward an engineering degree. I will receive my Associate of Science today and, in September, I will be attending a top ten nationally ranked aerospace engineering program at the University of Maryland.

For those of us who have ever struggled during our academic career, today is just a little bit sweeter knowing how far we've come. Our degree is both a milestone and a backstop; if any of us should ever slip and fall going forward, I can tell you from personal experience that having a college degree means a much softer landing and a quicker recovery than a high school diploma.

If there is one message you take away from my story, I hope it is the value of focused persistence. I challenge all of you, as I have challenged myself, to commit yourself to continued growth and self-improvement and stay focused on achieving your goals no matter what the setback.

Let's end with some words from Mr. Norman Augustine, the retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation and a leading national voice on strengthening science and technology education:

Needless to say, I am deeply honored and appreciative to receive an honorary degree from Montgomery College. I note that the order of proceedings today is such that I received my degree before you receive yours. I can't wait to tell my grandchildren that I graduated first in our class!

But there is much more to it than that; you see, you are my kind of people. You have made an effort far beyond that required of most college students in order to continue your education.

I once wrote a book called Augustine's Laws... if you happen to have a copy, let me congratulate you on being a member of a very select, small group... In the book I concluded that motivation will almost always beat mere talent. Of course, a combination of the two is nearly unbeatable--and, to me, motivation is synonymous with Montgomery College and its graduates. What you have learned here will serve you well in life; but what you did to learn here will propel you throughout life.

I offer my congratulations to every 2013 community college graduate. Add my voice to the countless others who said, at community college graduations across the country, "I am so very proud of you. You did it. Now go forth and change the world." I can't wait to watch Joel, James and all of you do just that.