Where Graduates are Grandmothers

Community college graduation rates may seem low, but Wick Sloane looks at the stories behind the graduates themselves.


June 5, 2008

What’s lost in the noise around community college graduation rates is community college graduations. My first community college graduation was in 2002, at Windward Community College in Hawaii.

That evening at Windward, the graduates came up the stairs on the right side of the stage, received their degrees, walked across the stage and down the stairs on the left. At the bottom of those stairs, a little girl, eight or nine years old, was waiting. She was holding a lei. When her father came down the stairs with his diploma, he bent over to let her put the lei around his neck. He picked her up and, diploma in one hand, daughter in the other, ran to his wife who was waiting to hug them both. These upside-down scenes at community colleges, with parents as the graduates, are my favorites.

The stories are too familiar, of community college graduation rates of less then fifty percent, less than forty percent, less than thirty percent. The official calculation is the number of students who graduate in 1.5 times the formal length of the degree. An associate’s degree is two years; the graduation rate measures the number of graduates in three years or fewer. For a community college, the measure can count students who enrolled without intending to earn a degree. A part-time student at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston who will transfer to Dartmouth College in the fall will count as a dropout because he didn’t earn a degree. Another part-time student who won a James Baldwin Scholarship at Hampshire College for the fall, too, goes in the records as a dropout.

Still, millions of students do graduate from community colleges at this time of year. With their triumph in mind, I set out Saturday morning into the commencement crowd of about 2,500 gathered to cheer the 781 graduates and 150 certificate recipients at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, where I have embedded myself as part of a fellowship to write about finance and equity at community colleges. The day’s stories stretch beyond the bounds of any column. I’ll stick with the snapshots.

Snapshot: In the lobby, I found Layah Williams, 13, and her sister, McKenzie, 8. Their mother, Carrie Williams, was in her cap and gown for her certificate in surgical technology. “We arranged her flash cards for her. When she had to do presentations, we helped her cut out pictures. She went to school in the day, when we were at school, so she was there when we got home, but she had a lot of homework and studying to do,” Layah said. “My job was cleaning my room. My sister had to do the dishes,” McKenzie said.

Snap: “I’m very proud of my Mom. She woke up at 4:30 in the morning to study,” said Zachary Sicand, 15. His mother, Tina Cole, received her associate’s degree in radiology after four long years, including one when her other son, a U.S. Marine, was deployed in Iraq. “’Wow!’ is what I think,” said Zachary’s grandmother, Jeanette Lozeau, also mother of the graduate. “Getting this degree was very hard for her. I admire her an awful lot for her guts.”

Snap: Brianna Neves, 14, was one of the six grandchildren there for Diane Huggins, who earned a degree with honors in human services. “I’m so proud of my grandmother. She stuck to it even when it was hard,” Brianna said. “I’m so absolutely happy for her,” her sister, Aiyanna, 10, chimed in. Their great uncle, Kevin Neves, was guiding the family through the crowds. The day before, he had received his master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation counseling from University of Massachusetts Boston. “I’m a disabled Vietnam vet myself. With what my sister has been through in her life, she should be very proud of herself,” Neves said.

Snap: Outside the big white tent, Bob Couture was warming up on his trombone before the procession, his twentieth at Bunker Hill. Already that week, he and his colleagues had played Gabrielli, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, and Pomp and Circumstance by Elgar for graduates at Brooks School, Bentley College, Wellesley College. “Where was I yesterday?” Couture asked Fred Aldrich, the French horn player. “Of all the graduations, this one at Bunker Hill has the feeling of victory,” Couture said. Aldrich agreed. “No feeling of entitlement here,” he said. “You really see the families rooting and cheering. Bunker Hill really takes the time to make this an occasion.”

Snap: “I gave up everything but here we are. I had a seven-day work schedule.” said Susan Johnson, who received two degrees, an A.A. in arts in general concentration and an A.S. in medical imaging. Johnson had not, though, found work with her degrees. “The job market has dried up out there. Even hospitals are having hiring freezes,” she said. “I gave up photography because there were no jobs and switched to healthcare, because there were jobs.”

Snap: Okland Lopez, standing beside his classmate Johnson, had also earned a degree in medical imaging. “I did this for my little sister, Brineilys Lopez, 16. She has Down Syndrome. I just felt I am pretty much the head of the household. I have to provide for her.”

Snap: “Okland has a huge extended family. He takes care of them all,” Johnson said. “I work in the emergency room at Mass General. Okland is always bringing in someone.” Okland laughed. “I’m always there at the emergency room. I never know who I am going to be taking in next,” he said.

Snap: I ran into Kevin Neves, the UMass Boston graduate, again, and his sister, still in her Bunker Hill cap and gown, and their family. He had told me that his return to school had motivated his sister to enroll at BHCC. Amidst her grandchildren, I asked Dorothy Huggins, the grandmother graduate, what was next? “I can go to UMass Boston for human services, but I have been thinking about Simmons College instead,” she said. “What! My alma mater isn’t good enough for you now?” Neves said to his sister. Everyone laughed and headed for the reception. “Tomorrow, we are having a big party to celebrate both our graduations,” said Neves.


Wick Sloane, who writes The Devil’s Workshop, won a fellowship to write about community colleges from the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. This is the third of his reports from that work. He is also the author of the just published "Common Sense," a pamphlet asking if the bachelor's degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.


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