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Harford Community College says farewell to the Class of 2014

Harford Community College's diverse and eager graduates celebrated the start of the next phase of their lives Thursday, proudly walking across the stage to get diplomas and mark a rite of passage.

The Class of 2014 featured students of different backgrounds, ages, abilities and life experiences. What they had in common, however, was their time at HCC and their celebration at the APG Federal Credit Union Arena.

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"I'm ecstatic," a beaming Rhonda McDuffie, of Abingdon, said before the ceremony. She noted it took her 35 years to make it to the moment, as she had returned to school after retirement to pursue a general studies degree with a concentration in criminal justice.

McDuffie said she next plans to pursue a bachelor's degree in sociology and criminal justice at Towson University, which will begin offering bachelor's degree classes on the HCC campus this fall.

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"I think it helps working parents, and parents in particular, because you can take classes online," she said about HCC's offerings. "The campus is very easy to navigate."

Joe Schuler, of Bel Air, drew a round of applause for walking across the stage proudly holding a framed photograph of his 29-year-old brother, Charles, who was given a posthumous degree in general studies.

"My brother and I would have graduated together today," Schuler said afterward. "He passed away two months ago; he committed suicide."

Schuler said he and his brother were in college together for many years, "working hard, paying for our own schooling."

"Everybody loved him. He was a very kind, gentle person," Schuler said. "He loved to learn. He was highly intelligent."

Graduates displayed their stories as buttons on their bright-blue gowns and on the colorful caps they had decorated with glitter, art or acronyms with personal meaning.

Before the ceremony, they seemed ready to move on, most to four-year colleges, but were happy with their experience at the community college.

"I actually loved HCC," Laura Rogers, of Bel Air, said.

She majored in general studies with a minor in biology and is going on to UMBC to pursue a certificate in ultrasound.

Rogers had one word for her feelings on graduation day: "Relief."

Rogers, who had been attending HCC "on and off" since 2005, said she mostly loved the school's "organization."

Ashley Wood, of Parkville, said she was "excited" to move on to University of Maryland University College, where she plans to major in human resource management.

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Wood, who received a diploma in business administration, said she took most classes online, which "was pretty nice."

Jeneal Linton, of Joppa, also was beaming as she prepared to walk across the stage.

"It's about time," Linton exclaimed. She said she had been at HCC for three years and would be getting a degree in early childhood education. She is planning to apply to Towson University.

"I love it," she said about HCC. "I really love the teachers, their willingness to help you."

"I am just excited. I am thrilled," she added about graduation.

James Valdes, chairman of the college's board of trustees, who delivered greetings at the 56th commencement for the college, told students it is important to be reliable.

"Showing up is really half the fight," he noted, adding students will be more successful if they are well-rounded.

He recalled having to take a minor in theology because he attended a Jesuit college, which "broadened my view of the world outside of the normal paradigm I would normally think."

The college eschewed a guest speaker this year, letting one of the graduating students speak instead.

Rephael Yousefi, who was selected to speak, said the college "lets every student find their own place rather than approaching it from a one-size-fits-all mentality."

He urged his peers to "discover the realization of what we can achieve."

The class erupted in cheers as Yousefi said: "Congratulations, Class of 2014. Go own your world!"

Aegis staff member Matt Button contributed to this article.

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