Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago says the graduating class had grit to persevere and get their degrees. See more photos here.
LENOX, Mass. — Jeremy Patterson admires the traditional college graduate, the ones who had the foresight and commitment to delve right into higher education.
Patterson is not a traditional graduate. At age 26, neither he nor his wife had even graduated high school. He was out of work and trying to care for their three children. One day in 2007, they packed everything they owned into a 1992 Oldsmobile and left their rural home in Florida, driving to a new home in the Berkshires.
"We were petrified. While staying with a friend, I found work and in a month we had gathered enough money to rent the apartment below him," Patterson said.
The children started school and the two parents talked about what they needed to do next.
"We were comfortable but we wanted more out of life for ourselves and our children and we knew the key to success was education. We came up with a plan. I would continue to plug away at my job while she first earned her GED and then her nursing degree from BCC. Then once she could support us I would quit my job and become the primary caretaker of the children and house while I earned my GED and networking degree," Patterson said.
He teared up on the stage at Tanglewood as the valedictorian of Berkshire Community College's class of 2017.
"And today nearly five years later we did it!" he said as the crowd erupted in cheers.
"We all have the capacity of doing something great. We have already proven that through our attendance here today. Don't ever underestimate the power we have to be successful. And don't ever take for granted the opportunities we have been given," he told his classmates.
Patterson has what Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago calls "grit." It is something he said all of the 195 students walking across the stage to receive their degrees or certificates have.
Sure there are famous people like Mark Zuckerberg, Lady Gaga, and Ralph Lauren who dropped out of college and "did OK" in life, he said. "But the vast majority of people who drop out of college do not do OK. In fact, they often don't do well at all. That is why your hard work, your juggling act, your willingness to preserve, even with kids and jobs and papers to write and exams to study for is such an impressive achievement."
"Research demonstrates that time and again community college graduates are people who have what it takes. You know how to persevere and keep going. You are resilient. You can also be a person of extraordinary talents," Santiago said. "But in the game called life, it is your grit and determination that trumps talent and innate ability."
Santiago cited the work of psychologist Angela Duckworth, who examined the success of West Point graduates, the most difficult military academy to be accepted to. Duckworth analyzed the habits and mindsets of those who quit and those who succeeded.
"The difference she found was not talent. It was not ability. All of those admitted were top-ranked candidates, first in their class. The difference in West Point cadets who drop out and those who graduate can be seen in what she calls the 'grit scale.' Cadets who answered yes to questions like 'I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge or yes I finish whatever I begin' are the students who manage to graduate," Santiago said. "They were not necessarily those who had the highest test scores."
A degree, however, is more than just a symbol of perseverance and grit.
"Your degree offers you protection, not blanket protection, but protection nonetheless from the ravages of poverty and the consequences of recession. The communities in Massachusetts that have the highest unemployment rates — Lawrence, New Bedford, Fall River, and Springfield — are the exact same communities that have the lowest number of adults with college degrees," Santiago said.
In Pittsfield, only 25 percent of the population has a bachelor's degree, which is well below the 41 percent state average, and thus unemployment is higher. In the next decade, 660,000 people will retire statewide in what he described as "silver tsunami."
"Will companies stay in Massachusetts if they can't find persevering people to replace those of us who will leave? These are the questions that keep many of us working in government, especially higher education, up at night," Santiago said.
The BCC graduates are on the "front line" of helping address those problems, he told them. They are the ones who are in line to prevent the state's economy from wasting away and he challenged them to do even more. Their perseverance is helping not only themselves but the Berkshires and the entire state, he said.
The college is doing its part to combat the need for more highly educated students. President Ellen Kennedy used the term "re-imaged" to explain the campus' atmosphere.
"We have been re-imagining our campus for several years — what it will look like with new spaces, updated technology, new classrooms and labs, new parking lots and driveways, new landscapes and walking paths — and this year all of that re-imagining will be compared to the new reality," Kennedy said.
"As you graduate today, major changes will have taken place on campus. We hope you found them conducive to learning. We hope you found spaces that provided quiet contemplation or active group study. We hope you found your faculty in comfortable office spaces that were private and serene. If you have re-imagined your life as a student, we hope that your reality at minimum met or exceeded that re-imagining."
And more than that, like Patterson, the college has offered the change for the graduates to re-imagine their own lives.
"You will each face unpredictable adventures and challenges in the days and years ahead as you strive to re-imagine your own future. Know that you are being given a gift, an opportunity, to decide what your future will hold and then make that re-imagining your reality," Kennedy said.
Melissa Myers, representing the Alumni Association, welcomed the class as new members of the associations, asking them to stay connected to the college and support its mission for future graduates. The class was sent off with mugs and membership cards to remind them.
After the speeches concluded, the audience of families and friends of the graduates roared as the advisers for each program presented the candidates for diplomas, and the graduates walked — or did cartwheels for one man — across the stage.
BCC Board of Trustees Chairwoman Darlene Rodowicz conferred the degrees, sending another class back into the world in a better place than when they came in and ready to follow Patterson's parting words, "let's show the world what it means to be a Falcon!"
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