May 24, 2013
TC3 grads embrace opportunity
College holds 44th annual commencement ceremony Thursday
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Tompkins Cortland Community College Commencement speaker Randol Contreras, a 1994 TC3 graduate who is now a sociology professor at California State University, Fullerton, talks about his transition to academia Thursday.
DRYDEN — Randol Contreras grew up in the South Bronx amid poverty and crime.
His parents, Dominican Republic emigrants, worked long hours, his mother in a sweatshop and his father at a dry cleaners and as a taxi driver.
He dealt drugs.
In the early 1990s, he found a way out — he came to Tompkins Cortland Community College.
“I thought I was brought back to life here,” the 1994 TC3 graduate said.
Contreras, the keynote speaker for Thursday’s graduation ceremony, said coming to the college was the most important decision of his life.
Public education gave him a second chance, he said. Contreras is now an assistant professor at the Department of Sociology at California State University, Fullerton,
The college celebrated its 44th commencement in front of a packed crowd of more than 2,000 people in the college’s gymnasium.
The class of 2013 includes 725 graduates from age 18 to 65 years old.
As he spoke, Contreras paused to gather himself when talking about professor Scott Ochs’ uncanny ability to see the potential in him when he was a student.
“As a student, I ran into Ochs in the parking lot where he stopped me and said he loved my writing and expected great things from me,” he said. “It was the greatest compliment I ever received in my life.”
Ochs said he took the time to introduce Contreras to some recent graduates in the hopes they would see that even if you are faced with struggles in life, you can look at Contreras as living proof of inspiration.
“As a teacher, I saw this kid with just such talent — he had this rare ability to comprehend and capture theory — and write so well,” Ochs added.
Mary Mills, a 56-year-old graduate in business administration and an Ithaca resident, said Contreras’ speech was amazing.
“It was so inspirational to hear him talk,” she said. “There are many of us who come from poor backgrounds ... I was just so impressed.”
Contreras concluded his speech by calling upon graduates to continue in the fight to make public education a second option for everyone, regardless of socio-economic background.
“You have all suffered and struggled, but everyone deserves a chance to grow intellectually,” he said. “Everyone deserves to pursue one’s passion and dreams and you are living proof that we need (public education).”
Dryden resident Amy Hanson, a graduate in office management and administration, said the speech was encouraging.
“No matter what obstacles we face in life, if we try hard enough, we can make it through,” she said.
Donna and Harry Wilhelm, parents of 22 year-old Zachary Wilhelm, a graduate in criminal justice, said their son had to overcome so much just to get to college, let alone receive his degree.
At the age of 17, Zachary decided to drop out of high school.
“The only way I was going to let (him) drop out of school was if he went back to get his GED and his associate degree,” Donna Wilhelm said.
“A big day for him, I told (my son) that I am not going to wear any makeup today because all I am going to do is cry,” she added.
“I was not in favor of him dropping out … and I am glad I was wrong,” Harry Wilhelm said. “I do not mind being wrong as long as it has a happy ending.”
Heather Swift, a 43-year old double-cancer survivor and single-mother of two teenagers, received her degree in biology and will begin the nursing program at the college in the fall.
“Contreras talked about such humble beginnings and the difficulties that families undergo,” Swift said. “He showed with opportunity like school anyone can succeed.”
TC3 President Carl Haynes congratulated students on meeting rigorous academic standards at the college.
“You’ve lived up to and, in many cases, exceed the standards of excellence our faculty and administration have set for you,” Haynes said. “You achieved. You succeeded. You are in rare company.”
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