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City Colleges of Chicago Celebrates Achievements of Class of 2017 at Commencement Ceremony

City Colleges of Chicago’s new chancellor, Juan Salgado, offered congratulations and a call to action to the more than 1,800 graduates gathered with family and friends to celebrate their commencement on Saturday, May 13th at the UIC Pavilion.

Graduates earned their associate degrees as an important step toward their future goals – whether transferring to a four-year college in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree, or taking a job in an in-demand field.

The 2017 ceremony is the first for CCC’s newly-appointed chancellor, Juan Salgado, who began his tenure with City Colleges on May 1st. Chancellor Salgado shared his own story of academic and career achievement – a story which also began at a community college.

Unknown 3“Our graduates are more powerful today – for the skills that they have learned at City Colleges, and for the degree that they have earned,” said Chancellor Salgado.  “I challenge our graduates to think about how they can use this power to inspire others – their family, friends, and community.”

2017 also marks the first graduation celebration for recipients of the Chicago STAR Scholarship, which provides qualified Chicago public high school students with a college education at no cost. More than 175 STAR Scholars are among the graduating class of 2017.

To ensure more students can access a viable pathway to college regardless of financial means, Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched the STAR Scholarship in 2015. The scholarship program currently serves more than 2,100 students in all seven City Colleges.

As of May 1, 2017, $655,000 in reported scholarship funds have been offered to STAR Scholars from STAR Partners – designated four-year colleges and universities that have made a commitment to providing STAR graduates with transfer scholarships and advising support.

At a special “Cording Ceremony” on Wednesday at Malcolm X College, Mayor Emanuel and Chancellor Salgado honored these students, who received blue cords designating them as STAR Scholar graduates. Students wore the cords as part of their commencement regalia at the May 13 graduation ceremony.

City Colleges has more than doubled both its graduation rate and number of degrees awarded annually since its Reinvention initiative launched in 2010.

Each of the seven City Colleges selected a valedictorian with high academic achievement and an inspiring story of success. The 2017 Valedictorians met with Chancellor Salgado prior to the ceremony to discuss their career and educational goals.

Kenneth Linares of Wright College was chosen to be the 2017 Commencement Valedictorian Speaker, representing not only his fellow valedictorians but all City Colleges graduates. Kenneth finished his associate degree in December and started classes in January at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studies computer engineering.

“The beautiful and important thing about community college is the second chance that it represents for so many people, who otherwise would have no open doors to economic and social prosperity,” said Linares. “For some, it’s a chance to bolster grades, for others it serves as an opportunity to find their passion, and for some others it is an opportunity to reinvent themselves. For all of us, community college is a door opener and an opportunity to change our lives for the better.”

The 2017 City Colleges Valedictorians are:

Daley College: Manases Leal – As a recipient of the Chicago Star Scholarship, Manases Leal was grateful for the opportunity to earn his associate degree at Daley College at no cost – allowing him to focus on academics without having to work or take out student loans.  With an interest in virtual reality technology, Manases will be transferring to continue his education in computer science. “Daley is a great transition from high school to college,” he says. “Universities can be a little overwhelming. They know you’re starting something new when you come to Daley College and they really work to guide you.”

Harold Washington College: Don- ggyun (Kevin) Woo –Born and raised in South Korea, Kevin left his high school in Seoul to finish his secondary schooling in Canada. Seeking a U.S. college with a convenient location and affordable price, Kevin picked Harold Washington College sight unseen. In fact, Kevin arrived in Chicago on the first day of his first semester. At Harold Washington, Kevin held leadership roles in the Student Government Association (SGA), including senator, vice president, and this year, SGA president. While working with the college’s Transfer Center, Kevin set his sights on becoming valedictorian – a concept initially unfamiliar to him. “Being able to represent my college was something that I knew I wanted from the first time I heard about it,” he said. “This accomplishment is literally a dream come true.” Having finished his associate degree in mathematics, Kevin plans to transfer to a four-year university to study computer science or applied mathematics and work toward a career in software development or finance.

Kennedy-King College: Cymba McReynolds – Health problems heavily affected Cymba McReynolds’ performance in high school, so her options were limited when she graduated. After taking a year off between high school and college, a healthier Cymba started at Kennedy-King College, which she saw as an affordable way to transition to college and get her grade point average (GPA) back up to where she wanted it to be. As someone who loves learning, a reinvigorated Cymba immediately took to student life. Having earned her associate degree, Cymba hopes to study abroad in China, an opportunity she learned about as a member of Phi Theta Kappa National Honor Society. “If I can go overseas and come back better, I feel like I can do anything,” she says. Cymba’s ultimate goal is to continue her education and eventually open a business in her local community.

Malcolm X College: Epiphany Casey – Unable to attend her preferred college after graduating from high school, Epiphany Casey spent a year working in retail before her mother encouraged her to continue her education at Malcolm X College. The encouragement worked and Epiphany enrolled in classes. Transitioning into the classroom was easier for Epiphany than she initially expected. She formed strong bonds with her instructors, who were always willing to put in extra time and answer questions when she needed help. Epiphany also gave back to her college community, working as a student ambassador where, among other responsibilities, she helped her fellow students successfully transition into the new Malcolm X College building when it opened in January 2016. As Epiphany prepares to pursue a career as a pharmacy technician, she values everything that Malcolm X College has done for her. “MXC is a great place to start,” she says. “It’s cheaper and gives students all the resources they need to succeed.”

Olive-Harvey College: Bertha Mendoza – Coming to the U.S. from El Salvador when she was 10 years old, Bertha Mendoza worked hard as a student, but her options were limited when she graduated from high school. Because she was not eligible for financial aid, she felt like a college degree was out of reach for her financially. With limited career options, Bertha focused on another passion – starting a family. Bertha realized she could still be a mother while also achieving her educational and career goals, and she credits her family with providing the needed support to help her achieve her goals and help her stay committed to her schoolwork. Now that she has earned her associate degree, Bertha plans to continue her studies in Spanish education at a four-year university. However, Bertha will miss the personal interactions and relationships she developed at Olive-Harvey: “Olive-Harvey does a great job making you feel like you belong,” she says. “You’re always a person at Olive-Harvey. You’re never a number.”

Truman College: Kana Nagai – Having moved to Chicago from Japan three-and-a-half years ago with her husband, Kana had limited English skills. Discouraged because she couldn’t understand much English, she enrolled in free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Truman College. After a year of honing her English, she applied to the college’s Gateway Program, which helps ESL and GED students move into credit courses at City Colleges. She soon found her niche in math classes and became a tutor at the Tutoring Center. Kana has already transferred to the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) to study mechanical engineering and eventually earn her master’s degree. Kana says the work is challenging, especially while she is striving to improve her communications skills. However, she has a support system in a group of students from City Colleges who transferred to IIT together, which she says is a huge advantage. She enjoyed her time at Truman because she feels that everyone has equal opportunities. “Even though I’m not an American citizen, I was older than many of the other students, and I am a woman pursuing mechanical engineering, I was always treated equally.”

Wright College: Kenneth Linares –Wright College was Kenny’s second chance at an education and he was grateful for the opportunity to prove himself academically. Kenny dropped out of high school and headed into the working world as an electrical technician. He found himself wondering how the equipment he was fixing actually worked. He also thought he’d like to be the person designing it. Not wanting to waste any more time, he earned his GED and enrolled at Wright College. There, he found himself a part of a community of classmates and passionate faculty. “Wright lets you connect with your professor and classmates more than you would at a larger college.” Kenny has already transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study computer engineering. He says that his classes at Wright prepared him to jump into classes as a junior. “The theory is that if you start at a community college, you aren’t going to succeed, but students need to get past that stigma – going this route can be just as fruitful and lead to the same success as starting at a four-year institution.”

City Colleges graduates represent a diverse range of ages, races and ethnicities, income levels, and life experiences and include international students, career-changers, parents and veterans.

Kevin and Jessica McBride, both veterans, are hardworking parents who graduated together, earning their associate degrees from Wright College. In order to fit school into their schedules while raising their young children, Kevin and Jessica took classes on alternate days. To motivate one another, they engaged in a friendly competition to see who could achieve a higher grade point average. It was a draw: both McBrides earned a 4.0 GPA. However, Jessica earned an additional distinction – she represented Wright as the college’s Salutatorian, carrying the Wright College flag before her fellow graduates – including husband Kevin – and her children. Both Kevin and Jessica plan to attend Northeastern Illinois University where Kevin will be pursuing a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences and where Jessica is planning to study to become a high school English teacher and eventually a college English professor.

Jessica McBride is one of many City Colleges graduating mothers who will treasure something extra alongside their flowers this Mother’s Day: a hard-earned college degree.

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