Right now I am sitting in the cafeteria of Finger Lakes Community College, waiting to speak for New York State's College Completion Day. As I think about completion, I look around me, and I realize I’m surrounded by students who are here for a reason. They may not know what that reason is yet, but for some reason, they’re here. They started.
As I sit here today, about to speak about completion and have it broadcasted to all 37 New York community colleges, I can’t help but think about where I started.
When I sat in my community college cafeteria I could have never really believed I’d be an author and a speaker, traveling the country and helping students succeed. It’s a Wednesday and I’m in New York State. Doing what I love. Is this real?
That was always my reason for completing college - to have a chance to do a job I loved.
My dad, who wasn't able to figure out what he wanted to do with his life when he went to community college, always instilled within me and my brothers to do what we love – to figure out who we were, what we were good at, and then find a way to paid for it. I chased that. And I always believed college would give me the freedom to explore and choose and fail, and then get back up again and try something new.
Last week my dad’s mom died. And on that same day, I received my M.Ed diploma in the mail.
And in that moment I realized a diploma is so much more than a piece of paper. For me, it represents my life. It represents my hard work, my tears, my failures, my strengths, and my choices. There is nothing you can really say to explain to someone the feeling of finishing something you’re proud of. The only way to feel that elation is to experience it.
And that is what I want for you. That elation of not just “getting through” college, but of completing it. The feeling of reaching a goal you really care about. The feeling of having more choices and a chance of a better life than anyone in your family has had before.
Sometimes I know it's hard to hope for that feelings when things are so hard now, when you're just trying to survive. But I have learned that any goal worth achieving involves long periods of time where you feel like your hard work will never pay off.
But it will.
And when you get that diploma you will feel it. You will realize that in the end it isn't the piece of paper that matters, and in some ways it isn't even the credential or the resume boost that really matters, that really gives you that feeling.
You may find, like I did, that the paper will bring to your mind what you did to get where you are today. It will make you feel so thankful to all the people who helped you achieve more than you ever thought possible. And more than anything else, you will enjoy the feeling that you have the power to create your life, despite any obstacles that come your way.
The things that cause community college students to drop out are also the things that make completers that much stronger.
You may have barriers you've faced because the color of your skin or the neighborhood where you grew up or how much money your parents had (or didn't have). But you are so much more than that, and when you complete your degree, you show the world that you can do anything. You prove that the American Dream still exists, because it is only as strong as the will of the people who pursue it.
But most importantly, you show yourself that you can do anything. And once you figure that out, nothing will limit what you can accomplish.
The New York State completion day event I was a part of can be viewed on FLCC Connects (my speech starts at around 38 minutes). And I highly recommend checking out this great short video they created, featuring amazing CC alumni talking about why it's so important to complete college.