Trenton, N.J. – Hundreds of proud family members and friends joined Mercer County Community College (MCCC) students, administrators, faculty members and Foundation Board members at the Trenton Campus’s 26th annual Celebration of Academic Achievement on May 6. The goal for one and all was to congratulate students studying in Trenton-based programs for a job well done and a mission accomplished. The event was held at the Trenton War Memorial.
The college recognized the achievements of 155 students who have made the Trenton campus their place of learning and are earning degrees and certificates in May. Among the honorees were 40 associate degree students, 65 General Education Development (GED) students, 24 English Language Institute (ELI) students, 24 HomeFront students, five Career Training Institute (CTI) students, and 21 students who participated in New Jersey Youth Corps.
Trenton Campus Provost Monica Weaver extended her congratulations in her opening remarks. “You are charting your destiny. This is a night for our graduates and for our graduates to thank those who have supported them,” she said.
Weaver noted the Trenton Campus’s tremendous impact on the lives of city residents. The campus serves over 3,000 students annually, along with 1,500 teens through Youth College programs.
“There are new programs at our campus and we are expanding by the day,” she said, adding that partnerships with HomeFront, the Trenton YWCA and other nonprofits keep the campus at the forefront of serving the community.
MCCC President Patricia C. Donohue urged students to keep learning and keep moving forward. “And remember, you always have a place at Mercer.”
Also addressing the graduates was Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, who emphasized MCCC’s important role in strengthening the city through education. “You have put yourselves in a position to be part of the economic success of our county,” Hughes said.
Master of Ceremonies for the event was Associate Professor of Communication Alvyn Haywood. Also participating were Trustee Robert DiFalco and Vice President for College Advancement Ed Gwazda, who presented eight scholarships on behalf of the MCCC Foundation. Foundation Board members in attendance were recognized for their work year-round to raise funds for resources and scholarships.
Keynote speaker was Pamela Pruitt, a Grammy Award-winning songwriter and media/marketing professional who is the current director of Multicultural Affairs at Rider University. “Today you are great,” Pruitt told the graduates. “But I am here to remind you that this is only the beginning. Persistence is key. Once it takes over it will keep you going.”
Pruitt knows that truth from personal experience. Her multi-faceted career has taken many turns, but it wasn’t until 2010 that she earned her bachelor’s degree in Communications, which she quickly followed with a master’s degree in 2012.
“It wasn’t easy. But I did it, and you can too,” Pruitt said. “With perseverance you can make it to the finish line.”
The highlight of the ceremony was hearing from students. Representing the associate degree candidates was Angelica Ayala, a first-generation college student who earned her degree in Liberal Arts. She recalled the obstacles she faced, noting that she almost gave up, but found the strength to carry on.
Expressing her gratitude to her family and her extended family at Mercer, Ayala said, “Mercer was the best choice I could have made. It allowed me to grow into the person I am today.”
During her time at the Trenton Campus, Ayala worked as an administrative assistant, regularly using her bilingual skills to assist students. A talented artist and jewelry designer, she will transfer to a four-year school and hopes to own her own jewelry business one day.
Deloris Nyerges spoke on behalf of students from the Career Training Institute, which provides short-term training for administrative professionals and students in the culinary field. Nyerges recalled her attempts to re-enter the workforce after 24 years. She quickly realized she needed more schooling and found that CTI offered the curriculum that would quickly retrain her as an administrative professional.
“I didn’t know what Microsoft was when I started. There were frustrations, but my teachers assured me I could do it,” Nyerges recalled.
She especially praised the resume writing workshop, which enabled her to get a job interview with the State of New Jersey, where she now works in the Forestry Department.
“In my current position, I am able to use the skills I was taught,” Nyerges said. “It feels good that people come to me with questions. It’s a great program with great teachers. I have my skills and I have my self-confidence.”
Luis Estrada represented students from the English Language Institute. Originally from Guatemala, Estrada’s goal in America was to enter the hospitality field. “We can all reach our goal in America,” he said.
Starting out as a washing dishes in a restaurant, Estrada learned some English from his co-workers, but not enough. Three years ago, he came to the Trenton Campus to learn English while also volunteering in the college’s Center City Café. Now he is a CTI student studying to become a chef.
“I want to be a better chef and a better person. I will get there,” he declared.
Tammy Toney, who is currently in her second semester of college classes at MCCC, represented GED candidates. She recalled her fears about returning to earn her high school diploma as an adult.
A support network with fellow students made the difference.
“We had a study group, which made it easier. We made a pact to help each other,” she said. Having overcome the hurdle of returning to the classroom, she said that the transition to college has been far less difficult.
“I decided I wanted a better life for myself and my children. Now, as a college student, I will not let anyone get in the way of my success,” Toney said.
Last to speak was Justin Johnson, who represented Youth Corps, a program for 16-to-25-year-olds who want to complete their high school education, gain community service experience, and assess their skills and talents as they map a plan for the future.
“This was the best choice I could have made,” Johnson said. “It was more than an academic experience. It introduced us to civic organizations and volunteer opportunities. Youth Corps helped us understand our goals and the steps to achieve them. We learned how to value ourselves and each other. This program is a great start for a brighter future.”
Several staff members were singled out for special awards. Instructor Jade St. Omer was selected for the Excellence in Teaching Award. Former instructor Melinna Harris, who retired from Mercer in December, received the Human Services Award.
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