For many people in the Valley of the Sun, it started out just like any other typical Friday. They woke up, got ready for work, and thought about how they’d spend their weekend. But for close to 600 Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC) students, May 10 was anything but normal.
For these students, May 10 was both a culmination of hard work and determination and the start of something fantastic. These students got up, headed to Grand Canyon University (GCU) and walked across that all-important stage where they collected diplomas or certificates of completion and in some instances, both.
The 23rd Annual Commencement Ceremony, EMCC’s largest to date, was short and sweet. After all, EMCC wasn’t the only Maricopa Community College to hold its graduation ceremony on May 10 at GCU. But the pomp and circumstance was clearly apparent. From the processional to the posting of the colors to the national anthem, sung by EMCC’s own students Candice and Crystal Sipe, reverence was in abundance from the onset.
Candice and Crystal Sipe, identical twins who were born with Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome, a rare, genetic disorder that causes blood platelet dysfunction, visual impairment, albinism, and pulmonary fibrosis, were chosen to perform The Star Spangled Banner after wowing judges at an April audition.
“There was a glow about them that enhanced their stage presence,” said Sharon Lind, Administrative Specialist Senior for the Deans of Student Affairs and one of the judges. “There was just something about them that made me like them from their introduction.”
The Sipe sisters proved the judges right by nailing every note in beautiful harmony.
“I had goosebumps, they were even better than when they auditioned,” Lind said. “They were so fantastic, they gave me chills, I’m speechless. It was beautiful. That is such a hard song, and to nail it like they did, it just gave me chills.”
Following the national anthem, EMCC President Dr. Ernest Lara gave the opening speech, telling the graduates that commencement marks a milestone in their lives.
“You are here today because you’ve accomplished something that may have only begun as a dream. You reached high, dreamed big, and succeeded. Now you’re ready to find the passion as you move forward,” he said in a nod to this year’s theme: “Reach High. Dream Big. Find the Passion that Propels You Forward.”
Following the welcome speech, Dr. Lara’s last as he is retiring after leading the college since 2007, EMCC student speaker Zach Stites congratulated his fellow graduates on completing an important milestone in their educational journey.
“The graduating Class of 2019 has much to be proud of,” he said. “You have taken challenging classes that made you see differing perspectives on world issues and joined clubs and organizations that tested your leadership skills. For some of you, you have surpassed the expectations of your peers and instructors. Some of you are the first in your family to attend and graduate from college. You have definitely reached high for your goals by going above and beyond, dreamt big by not allowing any obstacles to get in your way, and you have definitely found that passion that propels you forward.”
Zach, who was a member of Phi Theta Kappa and the Honors Program during his time at EMCC, left no one out when recognizing achievements, citing the cheerleaders — family members, friends, and instructors — who helped the graduates attain their goals.
“This day is for them as much as it is for you,” he said.
He also shared his personal story of resiliency and fighting the odds. He was born 10 weeks prematurely, weighing only 3 pounds with cerebral palsy hydrocephalus. He had multiple surgeries before he was 5, did not walk until he was 3, and did not talk until he was 4.
“For those of you who know me, though, it may be difficult to believe that at one point in my life, I never talked, because I’m definitely shy as some of you can tell,” he sarcastically said.
Doctors said he would not reach sixth grade and that he would be confined to a wheelchair.
“However, God, my family, and my friends had other plans for me,” he said. “I stand before you today as the college graduate who was not supposed to be. I reached high, I dreamt big, and as Mary Poppins said, ‘If you reach for the heavens, you will definitely get the stars thrown in.’”
He wrapped us his speech by challenging his fellow graduates to “meet those obstacles head-on, do not be confined to your own wheelchair, use the knowledge and the skills that you have acquired here at Estrella and apply them to the next step in your journey.”
Physics Professor Dr. Dwain Desbien took the mic next and joked that he should have spoken before Zach because it would be hard to follow such a powerful speech. He congratulated the graduates and gave them a few pieces of advice.
“Many of you are first-generation students,” he said. “Don’t be the last. Pass the desire for higher education on to your family and your friends. Help them attain what you have accomplished today. Graduation is not an end. The skills you have attained to this point need to be continued and used for the rest of your life. Today is not the end, but rather a beginning where you must continue to learn and grow and always have the desire to understand the world around you.”
Dr. Tom Nerini, Maricopa County Community College District Governing Board member, conferred the degrees and then it was time for the graduates to get what they’d been patiently waiting for: their sheepskins and certificates.
As their names were announced, their pride was evident in their smiles, in their tears, in their shimmies and shuffles across the stage. Not to mention in their creative, beautifully decorated mortarboards.
“I feel great, I feel accomplished,” said Jesse Stehlik, who graduated “with high distinction” and earned an Associate in Applied Science, Power Plant Technology.
Jesse’s educational journey at EMCC began three years ago. He chose the school so that he could live at home and be close to his family. The small class sizes were a bonus.
“It was perfect, I love small classes, I grew up with small classes,” he said. “In college, it worked out great because I got the one on one with professors, I got to get personal with my professors, and they made sure I passed the class.”
Although extremely proud of their honor student, his parents weren’t surprised that he graduated with high distinction, an honor afforded to students with a GPA between 3.70 and 3.89.
“It’s awesome, but in our house, that’s par for the course,” Jesse’s father, Scott, said. “If you want your car, if you want your insurance, if you want your phone, you’ve got to get A’s. B’s you get a talking to, C’s are not acceptable. A’s are in the homework. You do the homework and exams are easy.”
“The coursework was challenging, but I put in the work, sat down and read the books, and understood the material.”
Congratulations, Class of 2019. As Zach Stites said, “You did it!”