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Stories of hope: Celebrating North Carolina’s community college graduates

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  • We're lifting up the stories of this year's community college graduates. 2022 was a special year. Many of these students started their college journey during a pandemic. Read more about their resiliency. @NCCommColleges
  • From adult learners to early college students, this year's North Carolina community college graduates share about their challenges and determination to press on – earning a credential from one of the 58 @NCCommColleges.
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Each year, the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) serves more than 500,000 students, supports 319, 763 jobs, and employs 36,422 people. A recent economic impact study found that NCCCS contributes about $19.3 billion to the state’s economy each year.

But this year was particularly special for North Carolina’s community colleges. Many of the 58 held their first in-person commencement ceremonies since the start of the pandemic, and some had their largest graduating classes cross the stage this year.

It was also a special year for the 2022 graduates. Many of them started their college journey in the middle of a pandemic, while others chose to return and complete their education after having been out of school for years. Their resilience, determination, and steadfastness are highlighted in the stories below.

Graduate stories from across the state

Dedrick McFadden graduated from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College from the Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation program. After serving in the U.S. Army, McFadden wanted a career change and used the G.I. Bill to pay for his education. When reflecting on his time at A-B Tech and his degree, he said, “A degree in brewing really shows you put in the effort.”

Dedrick McFadden. Courtesy of A-B Tech

Grant Billingsley graduated from Blue Ridge Community College with an associate of art degree and plans to either transfer to a university or take a break from his education to focus on his music. Billingsley received the college’s Academic Excellence Award during the commencement. He was able to successfully pursue his education at Blue Ridge while working full-time thanks to the flexibility of online learning.

“Even though working a full-time job and taking a full course load have been very difficult, I have been successful in my studies thanks to the faculty at Blue Ridge Community College,” Billingsley said.

Paralee Cox was also among the graduates who crossed the stage at Blue Ridge. Read more about Cox’s journey from prison to community college graduate.

Blue Ridge Community College President Laura Leatherwood with Dallas Herring Award recipient Paralee Cox. Courtesy of Rich Keen/Blue Ridge Community College Marketing & Communications Department

Destani Taylor, a spring 2022 Brunswick Community College graduate and commencement speaker, has persevered through several setbacks throughout her education during the COVID pandemic. Balancing being a mother and a student has been difficult, but she hopes to continue her education after graduation. Taylor graduated with an adult high school diploma.

Elaine Harmon and Melody Reeves graduated from Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute with their degrees in medical office administration. As adult learners, both said they were hesitant about returning to school after being out for so many years. Harmon decided to return to school once her children were older, and Reeves said it was a work injury that pushed her to pursue a different career field.

“Initially I signed up for the diploma program, which would have taken me about a year and a half…after a successful first semester, I said, ‘You know, I can do this.’ I talked to my advisor, and we got it switched over to the two-year degree program.”

– Elaine Harmon, CCC&TI graduate
Elaine Harmon (left) and Melody Reeves at CCC&TI’s 2022 graduation ceremony. Courtesy of CCC&TI

Orlando Hernandez, this year’s recipient of the Dallas Herring Achievement Award nomination from Carteret Community College, will be graduating with an associate of science degree. After graduation, he will attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a full ride.

Johnny Hull graduated from Catawba Valley Community College with his adult secondary degree. Hull is the fifth member in his family to receive a degree from Catawba Valley.

“I’m pretty proud because I’m number five out of my family. My wife graduated the same way. Two of my sons graduated the same way. My daughter graduated the same way. They encouraged me to do it, and I finally did it.”

— Johnny Hull

Central Carolina Community College held a graduation ceremony for the seven participants of the SPARK entrepreneurship program. One graduate was awarded $5,000 in startup funding for a business venture opening in Siler City. Another graduate, Sherrie Hatfield, will use the knowledge she gained at CCCC to open a restaurant in downtown Siler City.

Kendra Butler earned her associate degree with distinction for her GPA this spring from Central Piedmont Community College 26 years after having dropped out of college to support her husband and four children. Her daughter Erin graduated alongside her at Central Piedmont, her daughter Angel graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and her son will be graduating high school from Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology.    

Ruth Mallory, 42, earned her associate degree in medical laboratory technology from College of the Albemarle this spring and has been hired at Outer Banks Hospital. She was able to adjust to online classes and is now able to fulfill her goal of working in health care.

This spring, Han Nugyen graduated from Forsyth Technical Community College. She is a 2022 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholar, a member of Phi Theta Kappa, and has won multiple scholarships.

Linda Pineda-Sabas graduated from Gaston College with an associate in science degree and is the recipient of the North Carolina Community College System’s Academic Excellence Award. As an immigrant from Colombia, Pineda-Sabas escaped the violence that resulted in the murders of her father and uncle, and she set out to help others in the field of medicine. Despite the adversities she faced upon arriving in the United States, which caused her to put her education at Gaston College on hold, she is now a distinguished graduate and will attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the fall to work toward her goal of becoming a physician sssistant. 

Linda Pineda-Sabas. Courtesy of Gaston College

Isothermal Community College student and Rutherford Correctional Center inmate Jermain Porter received his general equivalency diploma this spring with honors from faculty and staff. COVID-19 halted ICC’s GED programs for inmates, and Porter is the first graduate of the program since before the pandemic. Porter has been in the correctional system for 22 years and is set to be released by the end of the year. He acknowledges how hard he has worked for his GED and is eager to leave Rutherford Correctional Center as a changed man.

Jermain Porter. Courtesy of Isothermal Community College

Juan Carlos Ochoa-Granados graduated from the nursing program at McDowell Technical Community College and was recognized by the Foothills Nursing Consortium as the recipient of the Class of 2022 Clinical Excellence Award for his outstanding patient care during the last two years.

Angela Spruill is among the 12 students that graduated this spring from the veterinary medical technology degree program at Nash Community College. She reflected on her and her classmates’ time at NCC juggling quizzes and exams on top of caring for children and working part-time jobs and said doing so taught her self-determination.

Alexandra Joachin graduated this spring from Randolph Community College from the medical assisting program. She has secured a job after graduation and says the preparation RCC provided her has contributed to her success.

Nicholas Vue, whose family immigrated from Laos, graduated this spring from the electric utility substation and relay technology program at Richmond Community College and has been named the 2022 Academic Excellence Award winner. After receiving an associate in arts degree at a community college in Florida, Vue wanted a career change. He graduated with a 4.0 GPA.

Mikki Mizelle works in business administration and decided to attend Roanoke-Chowan Community College to gain knowledge on medical administration. She will graduate this spring with a degree in medical office administration and says that no matter one’s age, it is never too late to go back to school.

Heath Graham (left) and Cameron Graham. Courtesy of Robeson Community College

On May 11, Heath Graham, age 50, and his son Cameron Graham, age 19, graduated from Robeson Community College. After 15 years with the Lumberton Police Department, Heath realized he wanted to continue his education and enrolled at RCC for an associate degree in criminology. Cameron graduated from the early college and plans to transfer to the University of North Carolina at Pembroke with hopes of becoming a forensics specialist. He says attending early college was among the best decisions he has ever made.

Shortly after the death of her newborn twin sons due to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, Kristin Farmer enrolled in Southwestern Community College’s respiratory therapy program in 2020. She was the featured speaker at her health sciences graduation and noted the difficulties she has faced, thanking the SCC faculty and staff for their support along the way.

Chad Peterson graduated in May from Wake Technical Community College with an associate degree in computer programming. He is one of 15 individuals selected by the U.S. Department of State for the Foreign Affairs Information Technology Fellowship. The program offers Peterson $75,000 in academic funding for his junior and senior years, which will go toward his tuition at North Carolina A&T University where he will pursue a bachelor of science in information technology starting this fall.

These are just some of the stories of the Class of 2022. Congratulations!

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.

Alessandra Quattrocchi

Alessandra Quattrocchi is an executive fellow at EducationNC.