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Panelists Share Empowering Life Stories
In Celebration of Women's History Month


West Windsor, N.J. - The power of education, the importance of mentoring, the drive to succeed, and a passion for one's work were the major themes of panel discussions at both the West Windsor (WWC) and James Kerney (JKC) campuses as MCCC women celebrated Women's History Month on March 15. Alumni, faculty and other female professionals shared their personal success stories and offered sage advice to the current generation of students.

"The purpose of our celebration today is to inspire you and give you something to take with you on your journey," JKC Career Counselor Kimberly Bowser told the group at the Kerney campus. Many of the panelists were first generation college students who attended school with the encouragement of family members or mentors.

The program at the West Windsor campus was hosted by MCCC's chapter of the American Association of Women in Community Colleges. Panelists included Director of Advisement/ Enrollment Services Latonya Ashford-Ligon; Athletic Trainer and Associate Athletics Director Lisa Camillone; MCCC Work Study Coordinator Jean Falvo; MCCC Board member Gwendolyn Harris; Biology Professor Diane Hilker; Associate Professor of Business and Technology Andrea Lynch; and Student Activities Events Coordinator Tina Young. The Kerney Campus event was hosted by MCCC's Division of Student Affairs and featured Administrative Specialist Ayodele Kanyako; Learning Center Coordinator Joann Mia; The Islamic School of Trenton's Administrative Director Bayyinah Muhsin; and Director of the Mercer County One-Stop Career Center Virgin Velez.

Professor Lynch described the path that brought her to Mercer. A first generation college student who grew up in Camden, she was intrigued by computers, a new field when she first attended college, particularly for women. After graduating from Rutgers University, she became a computer programmer and then went back to school to earn her master's degree in Business. "But I always wanted to teach," she said. First a volunteer at JKC, her current career as a faculty member combines business, computers and teaching. "Never give up on your dreams," she counseled.

Another MCCC trailblazer is Camillone, the first in her family to set her sights on college. "I knew I wanted to go to college from the time I was 10," she said. The best athlete in a family of boys, she was used to the "tomboy" label. "There were no organized women's sports at that time. My high school gym teacher was my mentor," she said. While attending Montclair State, she met the school's athletic trainer. "I knew I could do that. I didn't see hurdles." She advised students to "put your head down and go for it!"

WWC panelists pictured with students, from left, Dr. Gwendolyn Harris, Professor Diane Hilker, Dr. LaTonya Ashford-Ligon, Lisa Camillone, Tina Young (foreground), Associate Professor Andrea Lynch and Work Study Coordinator Jean Falvo. The panel moderator was Amy Immordino.
At JKC, the panel featured Ayodele Kanyako, Mercer County One-Stop Director Virgin Velez, moderator Diane Campbell, The Islamic School's Bayyinah Muhsin, Learning Center Coordinator Joann Mia and Career Counselor Kimberly Bowser.
Students and others who attended the event at the MCCC Conference Center gave a hearty round of applause to panel members.

Dr. Gwendolyn Harris noted the importance of being prepared for opportunities. Having first earned a bachelor's degree in Social Work, she went on to earn a master's degree in Business, and finally her doctorate one class at a time. "Hard work was drilled into me by my family," she said. She also spoke of the importance of believing in yourself. "Trust that you will figure it out," she advised. Harris has worked as a leader in health and human services for the city of Trenton and the state of New Jersey. She is also giving back by serving on the MCCC Board. "This is my community. I have a stake here," Harris said.

For Dr. Ashford-Ligon, one of the keys was "having many cheerleaders." A lifelong Trenton resident, she found mentoring and networking to be key to her success. She earned her bachelor's degree in Business and served as a JKC recruiter for seven years, continuing for her master's degree at Rider and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership at Rowan. She notes that her educational background has been useful in unexpected ways. "It all connects. Whatever you gather in your lifetime has a purpose. Stick to it."

Joann Mia earned her GED from Mercer in the 1970s, but didn't further her education until the late 1990s. Discovering that it's never too late, she earned a certificate as a legal secretary and then her associate degree in Humanities and Social Science. She completed her bachelor's degree in Elementary Education/American Studies from Rider University and then her master's in Liberal Studies from Thomas Edison State College. While education has become a way of life, Mia says it felt like an impossibility in the beginning. "The determination is inside you. I used the resources at Mercer, and then I became the resource so I could help others like me."

Bayyinah Muhsin was working full time when she returned to school at Mercer to bolster her credentials. "I realized if I didn't make the time every day, I would never accomplish my goals. I persevered and I was able to do it," she said. Muhsin earned her associate degree in Liberal Arts, and then went on to earn both her bachelor's and master's degree from Sunbridge Institute in New York, which specializes in teacher training for Waldorf education.

Virgin Velez moved to the mainland U.S. from Puerto Rico when she was a child. Also a first generation college graduate, Velez's parents "gave me all the emotional support I needed," she said through tears. After earning her associate's degree in secretarial science at Mercer, Velez got a job in the governor's office. Four years later she returned to Mercer and took a class, which led her to pursue her bachelor's degree at Rider University. I
n her current position, Velez works closely with MCCC to help students and graduates find jobs. "I love what I do," she said, adding that her drive to continue her education has inspired her sons, nieces and nephews to do the same.

"For some people, Mercer is the means to a job, and for others, it's the first step in their education," Velez said. "If you think about your own situation, you can always come up with 1,000 reasons why you can't get the education you want. But sometimes you have to look past those obstacles and just find a way to do it."

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