BCC Graduates Speak of the Transformative Experience of College
LENOX, Mass. — The rain held off for Berkshire Community College's 2023 commencement on Friday as graduates were reminded of the power of higher education.
In the college's 63rd year, the recipients of certificates and associate degrees concluded their education under the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood.
The college awarded 189 associate degrees and 97 certificates to 245 students in 43 programs of study. Thirty-three students received more than one degree or certificate, and two students completed degree requirements as Early College students.
"Public education is at its best a public good," President Ellen Kennedy said.
"The public will benefit by your completing this degree or certificate. As such, it provides you have an opportunity not only to prove that it is indeed a public good, that your next steps will support our community and the Commonwealth, but that you see your role in ensuring others find ways to be successful on a similar journey to the one you are taking."
For valedictorian Ashton Bird and salutatorian Kaitlyn Barry, college was an unexpected venture that wound up as a transformative life-changing experience. Both with 4.0 GPAs, Bird earned an associate of arts in liberal arts and Barry earned associate of science in criminal Justice.
Bird's high school experience was not pleasant, plagued by mental health issues and a hearing disability, which came to a head during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"College was not on my radar and I kept digging myself deeper into the hole of a fruitless identity search. I was letting others define my personal interaction with the world," he explained. "It took some heavy encouragement from my father, but he eventually got me to just give it a try to just pick something and go with it. Do something fun and see if I like it. Surprise, surprise, parents are sometimes right."
The scholar explained that he is often at a loss for the correct words to say, so creative writing, painting, and music help express thoughts in an indirect way that can be verbalized later. It was only at this point that he felt discomfort with an incorrect interpretation of his thoughts, which sparked the decision to no longer be up to interpretation.
"Being chosen as valedictorian came as a massive surprise to me but apparently no one else was as shocked as I was. I was just doing all that I could and having fun while I was doing it. It was not a goal of mine and I never thought I would be in this position. I am so glad to be among the graduates here today in a place I never thought I would be going to, places I never thought I would go," Bird said.
"Along my journey, I have defined myself and narrowed the range of interpretation people can have about my life. What I do now, I do with purpose and intent. I say what I mean and I don't leave my life up to anyone's interpretation but my own because quote: I am not up to interpretation,"
"Fellow graduates as you move forward, remember that same sentiment, take the time take all that you need and through your learning, learn about yourself. You are the most important person in your life. Do not leave yourself up to the interpretation of anyone else. Move forward with intent. Make others know exactly who you are."
Similarly, being esteemed with the role of salutatorian is far beyond anything that Barry could have imagined.
In high school, she never received a grade higher than a C and struggled with a severe addiction to alcohol. Barry became sober in 2014, the same year that she lost her mother to cancer.
"My doubts were set aside when I entered BCC in 2019, let me tell you why," she said. "My entire experience at Berkshire Community College has been incredible. I had one amazing teacher after the next and they all went above and beyond to help me achieve success and fall in love with learning."
For the past 16 years, Barry has been a successful hairstylist in the county and has built herself a large following. She entered cosmetology school because she felt she wasn't smart enough to go to college but now, that is no longer true because of a profound internal change.
"Once I began my journey as a non-traditional college student, I remained anxious but as time went on with success in my classes, I began to feel confident and empowered," she explained. "I hope that the rest of my graduating class have had an equally empowering experience."
Commencement speaker Edson Chipalo, who graduated from BCC eight years ago and has since earned a doctorate, used his education to escape the poverty of his birthplace in Zambia. Chipalo is an assistant professor at Lewis University in Chicago and focuses his research on the mental health of those living in refugee camps and those who are resettled in other countries.
He described his humble beginnings as an orphan in Zambia, stricken by poverty and struggling to find role models.
Financial constraints compromised the scholar's high school education and forced him to educate himself from friends' school notes. Eventually, his late aunt funded his tuition and fees and he was able to complete high school.
"She breathed life into my dreams and kept the flame of hope alive," Chipalo explained.
"Attending school came with its own challenges. I faced ridicule, bullying, and discouragement, even from some of my teachers. I was judged by my impoverished conditions, I was made to believe that poverty will forever determine my worth and success. Despite all these challenges, I was fueled by an unwavering determination to use education as a vehicle to escape poverty."
When he came to BCC he, knew that he found the right place, as the admissions office greeted him with warmth and he was encouraged to stay.
"The faculty and staff impressed me with open arms, providing me an opportunity to pursue higher education even though it seemed like a far-fetched dream in the beginning," he said.
"Far away from my home country, Zambia, family, and friends, I discovered a new family and friends at BCC and within the larger community in Berkshire County, where people were willing to provide support and help that I needed and they encouraged me and they saw something positive in my life that I never even imagined."
During his time at BCC, Chipalo never felt different because each student was given a chance to succeed regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, cultural background, religion, socioeconomic status, and more, he said.
"Today I stand as a living testimony to how BCC has significantly transformed the lives of underprivileged students," he said.
"I am grateful that I chose BCC and numerous other alumni can attest to its impact, who have had their dreams realized in various ways through access to the scholarships. Undoubtedly, education serves as an equalizer, opening doors for even the most unexpected individual like me, who grew up in the slum, who grew up as an orphan, who didn't know that there was a future ahead of living in the stands, who didn't know that there was hope, but education transformed my life."
Chipalo has "absolute faith" in the graduates' abilities to overcome challenges through access to education and urged all graduating to never question the significance of their degree.
The national anthem was sung by Joseph Sicotte and the processional and recessional were performed by the City of Albany Pipe Band. Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler led the call to order and closed the ceremony.
During the commencement, mathematics professors Annette Guertin and Nancy Zuber were recognized as professors emeritus.
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