With interruptions for work and family, it took April Waskey 30 years to earn an associate's degree from Howard Community College.
Waskey, 49, of Ellicott City said she continued to pursue her degree because she wanted to take her career in a new direction, but also as an example to her 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.
"I wanted them to know Mom's doing it, they're going to have to do it, too," she said.
A shared commitment to higher education drove 701 graduates to complete their course work at Howard Community College this year. The college's 37th commencement ceremony, held Friday under a tent on the Columbia campus, was an opportunity to celebrate their accomplishments.
"We respect and admire your dedication to your dream, to your success," said Patrick L. Huddie, chairman of the college board of trustees, told the graduates.
Later in the ceremony, Huddie presented the first Senator James Clark Jr. medal to the family of Leola M. Dorsey in recognition of her contributions to the college, the county and the state as a supporter of education, civil rights and other civic issues. Dorsey, who died in February, was a trustee of the college from 1973 to 1987 and an active supporter in the years that followed.
Huddie also presented honorary degrees to Patrick and Jill McCuen, a couple who started a scholarship endowment for low-income single parents and displaced homemakers, bequeathed the Burrill Galleria space on campus and recently donated $1.2 million to the college's educational foundation.
As keynote speaker, Gov. Martin O'Malley praised the graduates' passion and commitment. He spoke of their shared belief in the dignity of individuals, a responsibility to advance the common good and the idea "that what we do in our own lifetimes does matter."
He said: "The thing that got you here today is belief in the future."
In conclusion, O'Malley urged the graduates to write the history of an America that is stronger, more healing, compassionate, greener and cleaner, diverse, welcoming and globally engaged, saying, "As you write that history, you will save the world."
Amena Ali, who was selected as the student speaker for this year's commencement, said her experience at HCC encouraged her to think big. She earned a degree in English and she plans to pursue a career in human rights law and help women in other countries.
An Ellicott City resident and 2006 Centennial High School graduate, Ali told the crowd that when she arrived at the college "as a short, shy girl, I had no idea how to involve myself in HCC's student life." Encouragement from teachers and support from peers led her to become assistant editor of the HCC Times student newspaper, president of the Muslim Student Association and founder of a discussion club called the Armchair Intellectuals.
Ali's four older brothers had graduated from HCC. She said in an interview that she always thought it would be great to be a speaker at graduation. When it came time to audition, she said, she drew on a key lesson she learned at the college: If you want something, try for it. You will be surprised by the outcome.
Alexangel Estevez, 30, said he also found a great deal of support at HCC when he moved from Los Angeles to Ellicott City on his own, seeking a college where he could study art. After eight years as a dispatcher at 20th Century Fox studios, he had found that a lack of education was keeping him from using his artistic skill to move to the graphics department.
He said of the HCC faculty, "They actually were there, they cared, they put in that extra mile."
With support that ranged from accommodations for his learning disability to scholarships for a two-week painting class in France, Estevez said his dreams are "all pretty much coming true."
"The goal was to get my [associate's degree] and go back to L.A.," he said. "Now I don't want to. I want to stay out here and go to school."
He said he plans to enter Virginia Commonwealth University and pursue a career in graphic design.
Waskey's educational path stretched over three decades, starting with her first classes at HCC in 1978.
She stopped her studies to get married and support her husband while he went to college. She said she took classes while pursuing a career putting together bid proposals for the engineering company that is now Honeywell. Then, she and her husband started a family and for a while life revolved around two children.
It wasn't until a couple of years ago that she said, "It was time for me to finally get on track and get this thing wrapped up."
Waskey earned an associate's degree in business management and plans to continue her studies at the University of Maryland University College. She said she does not want to go back to her former career "and the only way I could break away from that was to become educated."
Her degree is also meaningful, she said, because "years ago, I think women weren't pushed to do these kind of things. It is so important for women to be able to take care of themselves. They need to stick with it, get it somehow, some way until it happens."