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MCCC Graduates in the Spotlight

5/12/15


West Windsor, N.J. - Each year, Mercer County Community College (MCCC) celebrates the graduation of a large and diverse group of students, some of whom have overcome significant challenges to earn their college degrees. The Class of 2015 includes nearly 950 students; the college will award 1,013 degrees and certificates.

MCCC's 48th Annual Commencement ceremony takes place Thursday, May 21 at 5:30 p.m. on the West Windsor campus quad. Two students, Student Government Association President Gina Migliaccio and PTK President James Gazawie, are the 2015 student speakers. Rush Holt, former U.S. Representative for the 12th Congressional District, is the guest speaker.

MCCC sends its students on their way with a belief in their continued success and best wishes for productive and fulfilling lives. Here are just a few stories of students who have made the most of their time at Mercer.

James Gazawie, A.A., Liberal Arts
Monmouth Junction, NJ


James Gazawie is the first to admit that his teenage years were rocky. “I have an untraditional background,” he says, which includes leaving high school in his freshman year and then spending time in an alternative high school program.

After earning his High School Equivalency, Gazawie became a licensed cosmetologist and worked in a barber shop. Then he worked on the night shift at a supermarket. Then he decided it was time to go to college.

Needing just one pre-college math class, Gazawie began his college career in earnest at MCCC in 2012. He took a number of stimulating courses, including several American Honors classes.  His interests range from psychology and sociology to neuroscience, economics and computers.

This past year Gazawie served as president of MCCC’s chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society and participated in Psi Beta, the psychology honors society. He also worked with students in MCCC’s Foundations math lab and volunteered in public speaking classes taught by Professor Alvyn Haywood, whom he considers a mentor. He has contributed to Mercer’s student newspaper and maintains an almost perfect GPA.

While he notes that community colleges don’t always get the respect they deserve, his experience at Mercer has been nothing short of life-changing. “At big schools, you don’t always have the opportunity to sit down and discuss your program and your future with your professors. My professors have opened my eyes to opportunities and given me confidence. I feel that I can do anything as long as I put the effort in,” Gazawie says.

As he prepares to transfer for his bachelor’s degree in the fall, Gazawie observes, “I never thought I would go to college, nor that I would do well.” He has proven himself wrong on both counts.


Jacqueline George, A.S., Exercise Science
Lawrenceville, NJ

Jacqueline George, a mother of three who earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry years ago, recalls being intrigued each time she received MCCC’s Continuing Education catalog in the mail. With exercise having always been part of her life, she considered pursuing a certificate to become a personal trainer. But then she enrolled in the credit course "Introduction to Exercise Science" with Assistant Professor John Kalinowski and decided her future.

A former pharmaceutical company chemist, George believes she has found her true calling as she graduates with her degree in Exercise Science. “My whole life has been about exercise,” says George, who did ballet for 25 years, and enjoys jogging, skiing, yoga and weight training.

With a philosophy that promotes fitness for life, she recalls her experience following pregnancy, which required a physical comeback each time. “People get discouraged if they have a physical setback. My take on fitness is less about pushing yourself as hard as you can and more about nurturing and rebuilding, taking the steps to keep going. You have to listen to your body.”

For George, MCCC was just what the trainer ordered. “Mercer gave me the confidence to explore and branch out in this field. I have a foundation and knowledge base I would not have achieved on my own. Mercer is my anchor.”

Attending classes with students who were mostly coming directly from high school, this 40-something says she always felt welcome. And she graduates with a parting gift. This spring, she restarted the Weightlifting Club, which had gone dormant for several semesters. Officers and protocols are in place for next year and George believes the club is in good shape to carry on.

After graduating, George will branch out further. She plans to become a certified yoga instructor and continue to instruct for the Healthy Bones program, which helps women with osteopenia and osteoporosis keep their bones strong and their balance intact.

She notes that attending college while raising her children was a challenge, but she prioritized and managed her time carefully. “It’s doable as long as you have a support system,” she says, adding that she made sure her children understood that her return to college would benefit them all. “We transitioned from quantity time to quality time. It was an adjustment, but it was worth it.”




Gina Migliaccio, A.A, Liberals Arts/Education
Hamilton, NJ


Gina Migliaccio came to Mercer used to serving her school.  At Steinert High School, she was president of her senior class and, upon enrolling at Mercer in Fall 2013, she got active in student government. This year, she served as president of the Student Government Association (SGA).

Migliaccio notes that her Mercer experience has been top notch – from excellent professors to her extracurricular activities. “There are so many people who know so much about how to help you achieve your goals,” she says.

After graduating with her associate degree in Liberal Arts/Education, Migliaccio will transfer to Rider University in the fall as an Elementary Education major. “Mercer is challenging and stimulating. Academically I gained even more than I expected. I feel ready for transfer.”

In addition to SGA, Migliaccio is a member of the Music Club and just appeared in The Yardley Players’ production of “The Music Man” at Kelsey Theatre.  She serves as secretary for the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education and has been an ambassador for the college’s SOAR program for new students.

“Being involved as a leader gives you an opportunity to exercise your talents, make friends and work towards common goals with your peers. You gain leadership skills and independence. You can take these skills with you," Migliaccio says.
Chioma Okoro, A.A., Liberal Arts
Hamilton, NJ

Chioma Okoro has been around the world academically. Attending the first two years of high school in New York City, she spent her junior and senior years at a school in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

A student with a ready smile, Okoro is, nonetheless, very serious about her studies.  “I want to go into law or politics,” she says. “My goal is to help children.  I have seen young people go astray.”

Enrolling in Fall 2013, Okoro has made the most of her Mercer education.  An American Honors (AH) at Mercer student, she says the program has been a good fit.  “It's for students who take education seriously. I like the fact American Honors is helping us achieve our dreams.”

A two-year starter on the women’s basketball team, Okoro split much of her time between the classroom and the basketball court. She often found herself completing assignments late into the night.

She notes that AH advisor Nick Geremia has been a valuable ally. "Nick has guided me. He wants me to be a shining star. He makes me feel good about myself and wants to see me excel.”

Okoro has been accepted to her dream school, Howard University, in Washington, D.C. “I always knew I would apply there, but American Honors has done as much as possible to help me financially.”

Okoro believes that nothing worthwhile in life is easy. "You have to challenge yourself if you want to stand out. And sometimes you find out it’s not as hard as you thought it would be.”
Micah Steele, A.A., Liberal Arts
Ewing, NJ

U.S. Army veteran Micah Steele has covered a lot of territory. Born in Hawaii, he left for the Caribbean at the age of 18, where he worked for Martin Marietta in St. Croix, and then did farm work and learned to repair equipment. By the age of 27, he had other goals in mind. He was thinking about marriage and a family. He also knew he wanted to earn his college degree and thought his best route would be through the U.S. military. He enlisted in 1997.

Fast forward 15 years and Steele is finally achieving his goal.

“This has been my opportunity,” says the Liberal Arts student, noting that he expects to work for many more years and is preparing for a career that is less physically demanding than his previous work as a vehicle technician in the military.

Steele, who achieved the rank of sergeant during active duty with the Army through 2003 and then served in the National Guard until 2011, was deployed to South Korea and had several tours in Iraq.

Injured in 2009, Steele returned to the United States for rehabilitation at the Army Base at Fort Dix and then moved to Ewing Township. “New Jersey has the ocean,” the Hawaiian native observes of his decision to remain in the Garden State.

Steele believes that community colleges are an obvious starting point for many veterans re-entering civilian life, particularly those who are entering a college classroom for the first time. “It’s a way to get used to an academic environment. Once you realize you can be successful, your confidence grows,” he says.

Steele first started at Mercer in 2010, but believes he just wasn’t ready. “I had good intentions, but it overwhelmed me.” Then, he took a break and reached out for help.

“I talked to a counselor and other veterans,” Steele recalls. He began again at MCCC in 2013 with dramatically different results. “I have gotten good grades and connected with my professors and other students. I had to be in the right place first.”

Steele’s own story gave him the motivation to establish a new MCCC club, the Alliance for Veterans and Supporters, in 2014 with co-founder Paula Klockner, whom he met during his first semester. Since then the two leaders have created a community for MCCC veterans. A newly elected club president will take over in the fall, ready to soldier on with the club’s mission to support and nurture veterans.

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James Gazawie

 

Jacqueline George

 

Gina Migliaccio

 

Chioma Okoro

 

Micah Steele