By Kayla Tucker – A&E/Features Editor
Photos by Sean P. Mulhall – Editor-in-Chief
Last Friday, May 1, 600 students walked across the stage to receive their associates degree from Grand Rapids Community College.
“I feel like I’ve made a big accomplishment,” said Robert Bell, 45, criminal justice major. “GRCC has been a special place for me.”
GRCC provides opportunities to students who may not have gotten the same elsewhere.
“It’s been three and a half years,” said Angela Goodin, 29. “It was a real big struggle because I couldn’t read or write properly. I had dyslexia and now I’m passing. It’s the first time I’ve ever walked…It feels incredible. I’ve accomplished something that I was told I could never do, and now I’m here.”
Over 1,900 students graduated officially, but still the Van Andel Arena was packed for the 100th anniversary commencement ceremony.
President Barack Obama was invited to speak at the special ceremony, but the college was recently told that he wouldn’t be able to make it.
GRCC President Steven Ender opened the ceremony with a message from the President.
“All of our people deserve the chance to access knowledge and compete in our economy, and a post-secondary degree is the surest way to do any of those realms of opportunity,” Ender read from the note from Obama. “Schools like GRCC enrich communities and help people weave their unique stories into the American narrative.”
Before distributing diplomas, GRCC gave some special awards to students and community members.
Ellen James, trustee, presented the Distinguished Alumna Award to Terri Handlin, who graduated from GRCC in 1974 and once served as president of the GRJC Alumni Association and as a chairperson, treasurer, and secretary for the board of trustees.
The Presidential medallion was awarded to the late President Gerald R. Ford. President Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales, received the award in his honor. The award has only been given outside the campus community one other time.
“Grand Rapids was the core of what he was as a president,” Bales said. “Dad was the college commencement speaker in 1963. He was a huge supporter of the college as Grand Rapids congressman, as president, and in the campaigns after the White House. He would have been thrilled to be a part of this 100th anniversary.”
Bales went on to talk about Ford’s accomplishments for colleges and the community.
“Title IV, ladies and gentleman, was issued by my dad,” Bales said, receiving applause.
Bert Bleke, chairperson of the board of trustees, took the stage as this year’s commencement speaker, beginning his speech with, “I’m not Obama.”
At first, Bleke stated that “life is not fair,” but began to relate back to the students.
“A living example of that sits in a graduating class,” Bleke said. “Sitting in a graduating class are all different kinds of stories.”
He followed up by asking the students, “why are you here?”
“We cannot control … what happens to us,” Bleke said. “But we can control how we react to what happens to us and that, I would think, is the one thing you should remember. Your attitude makes all the difference in the world.”
Bleke pointed out the faculty sitting in front, and thanked them for molding the students about to graduate.
“Teaching is a science, but also an art,” Bleke said. “It’s a human endeavor.”
Ender presented honorary degree to recipients Sue Udell and Betty Malmyga before addressing the graduating class.
“We are proud to call you alumni, and now its time for each to shine as you take that walk across the stage,” Ender said.
A standing ovation began as the students turned their tassels.
“I think its incredibly important that we recognize your parents, your family, your friends, those close to you,” Ender said. “No one earns a (degree) without tremendous support from people around you. People that are there to say ‘yes, you can’ on those days when we just fall short.”