En Español. The roar of the crowd joined the thump of the electronic bass in a laser light show that followed the awarding of degrees to over 1,000 Phoenix College (PC) graduates with their families filling the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Friday, May 12, 2023. As students streamed out of the coliseum in bright blue robes and caps flanked by PC faculty and administrators, many stopped to high-five, fist-bump, or hug a professor who nurtured their journey toward a college degree. Outside the stadium, students met up with family and friends for photos. One student with over ten colorful leis already thick around his neck stood among a circle of thirty family members who continued to present him with flowers and take photos, proud of his accomplishment.
For many students, commencement is the reward for overcoming hardships and obstacles–personal, financial, or academic–encountered during school. A Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) student, Kiany Rodriguez found the Biological Science program challenging. Still, the hardships and adversity she experienced also pushed her to find the endurance to continue pursuing her goal. "I learned I'm really capable of a lot of things," she said. Kiany initially wanted to go out of state for school, but she found Phoenix College the best place for her because of the diversity on campus. "Everyone comes from different cultures, and I felt in the right place for once. It was cool to hear other people's stories," she said. Kiany will transfer to Arizona State University (ASU) to continue her studies in Biological Sciences with an emphasis in Ecology and Conservation. She also has a paid internship in an ASU research lab studying parasites and bacteria. She credits Chemistry faculty Rashel Sumpter with preparing her for upcoming ASU chemistry classes and writing letters of recommendation. "Without her, I would be so lost," Kiany said.
Care and Support
Before the ceremony, students streamed into the coliseum and lined up for the photo station, many taking photos with other graduates they met at PC. Interior Design graduates Nayla Grannados and Cameron Moore, now friends, met in an AutoCAD class. They expressed gratitude for the caring and supportive cohort of students and faculty in the Interior Design program. Nayla mentioned how one instructor, Cory Golab, helped her grow. Cameron participated in a five-month internship at Piece by Peace Designs last semester. He came away with many insights about the industry that he will transfer to NAU in Flagstaff to pursue his Bachelor's degree in Interior Design.
Pride and Honors
Many students wore stoles that honored their heritage. Thomas Chavez demonstrated pride in his Mexican and American heritage by wearing a stole with the American flag on one side and the Mexican flag on the other, topped with his yellow honors cord. With a degree in Paralegal Studies, Thomas plans to continue pre-law studies and attend law school. As a Marine veteran, Thomas also noted how PC's Veteran Services Manager, Michael Wainscott, quickly responded to his emails and provided support. Jawaad Abdul-Rasheed, wore a stole recognizing his African-American heritage and membership in the Maricopa Council on Black American Affairs (MCBAA), a Phi Theta Kappa honors cord, and a Hawaiian blue and yellow lei braided and given to him by a friend. Coming from a home-schooled education, Jawaad graduated with an Associate in Arts with an emphasis in Kinesiology and will pursue a Bachelor's in Exercise Science to become a Physical Therapist. He is eager to use his education to give back to people experiencing health issues.
Other students came with decorated caps to honor those who inspired them to finish their degrees. A Head Start preschool teacher at Southwest Human Development, Priscilla Loeza decorated her cap with curled pink streamers and colorful stars to honor "the little ones who make my day so bright," she said. Priscilla received her Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in Early Childhood Education. Myrna Gordon decorated her cap with pictures of her three grandchildren. A retired police officer from Baltimore City, Myrna graduated with a criminal justice degree thirty years ago. She moved to Arizona two years ago to be near her grandkids and pursue a new career. "I'm elevating myself to become more marketable than I already was," she said. "I plan to become a Physician's Assistant. That's why I decided to do the Emergency Medical Technology (EMT) program."
The Highs and Lows
Inside the coliseum on the State Fairgrounds, Phoenix College President Kimberly Britt employed a roller coaster metaphor to acknowledge life comes with "the highest of highs and lowest of lows" and shared her experience of growing up in foster care, and grieving the death of her daughter. She encouraged students to build a toolkit to survive the lows. The tools? Bravery: "Fear is part of success. Act despite your fear." Resilience: "Survival comes with your ability to adapt. Plant your roots so deep that you can bend with the storm." Grit: "Persistence keeps you from giving up." Kindness: "Nobody goes it alone most of the time. Pay it forward." And with that last tool, she asked the graduates to stand up and applaud their fans in the audience.
Committment to Excellence
Student speakers Zach Knapp and Sarah Nunez, who both returned to school as parents, said, "Our labels don't define us. We define ourselves by our commitment to excellence." Zach, a single parent of two daughters, and wearing what looked like a heavyweight wrestling championship belt around his gown, was recently awarded the All AZ Academic Team Scholarship, All USA Academic Team Scholarship–awarded to only 20 community college students in the country–and the New Century Transfer Scholarship. He will continue his studies at ASU in Psychology. With four children and two grandchildren, Sarah returned to Phoenix College for a Human Resources Certificate, which she received in May 2022. She earned a Marketing Certificate and an Associate's in Business Management this year and heads to NAU for their Strategic Leadership Program.
Sí se puede!
Keynote speaker Oscar de las Salas, an award-winning international architect and designer and Manager of Client Relationships for Gensler, evoked Sofia Vergara's character on Modern Family to explain what prompted him to attend Phoenix College. Sofia's character, Gloria, changes the English idiom "walking in my shoes" to "talking in my shoes" and her TV husband tries to correct her, but she cuts him off to say, "Do you know how smart I am in Spanish?" Oscar, born in Colombia, was also smart in Spanish, but wanted to sound smart in English, so he enrolled in an English as a Second Language (ESL) course at Phoenix College to improve his vocabulary, engage in conversations at an executive level, and write construction administrative reports. He noted the class felt like a United Nations meeting with students from Central America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Some students were engineers and specialized doctors, while others were refugees escaping totalitarian governments. Eventually, Oscar started to dream in English. Yet, for the Spanish-speaking students and families in the audience, he offered some thoughts in Spanish: “Gracias a nuestros talentos, nuestra pujanza y nuestras ganas de salir adelante podemos probar el dia de hoy, que momentos como estos son posibles. Sabemos que, si se puede! Thanks to our talents, strength, and desire to get ahead, we can prove today that moments like these are possible. We know, yes, it's possible."
Los Osos de Valle
However, the night's performance that had students dancing in the aisles was PC's Mariachi Band, Osos de Valle. The ensemble, dressed in traje de charro–matching uniforms with ornamented trousers, boots, wide bow ties, and short jackets–performed Las Abajeñas by Cuarteto Cuculense. Meant to move you and instill emotion–joy, anger, desolation, rebellion–Mexican mariachi music brought one brave graduate onto the coliseum floor, stomping his heels to the romping rhythm and swinging his arms to the harmonies, in a gesture of pure joy. He inspired other PC graduates to move too and share in a cultural tradition, celebrate graduation, and be human.
We trust the class of 2023 will move our world forward with their humanity, knowledge, and passion.
Sí se puede! Yes, it's possible.
Watch the full video of PC's 2023 Commencement: