A business administration major, who is also a mother of three, represented the diverse face of Harford Community College's 57th graduating class Thursday evening, which walked across the stage at the APG Federal Credit Union Arena as relatives and friends cheered.
"Today, we are celebrating our graduation from Harford Community College, but we are not graduating from learning," Leanna Steele, that mother and business major, said in an address to her fellow graduates.
The hundreds of students, who made up the Class of 2015, ranged from young to old, and they came from different backgrounds with diverse abilities and goals for the future.
One notable group was a mother, a son and a daughter – Christine Caudill, Colton Wilmouth and Elissa Hanson – who all graduated together.
The class also included August and December 2014 graduates.
Steele said she learned much more from Harford than just her field of study, noting she also "learned how to learn" and traits like perseverance and character.
Before the ceremony, the soon-to-be graduates were huddled in their blue caps and gowns in the college's auxiliary gym, preparing up for their big moment.
Some decorated their caps with creative, heartfelt or mysterious slogans. One woman's said, "Future RN," while another's was simply covered in glittery sequins that said "2015." A man sported a picture of rapper Kanye West and a croissant, with West's lyric: "Hurry up with my damn croissants."
Asked how she felt about graduating, Tineka Reid exclaimed, "Wonderful," and said she feels "blessed."
"It's been a long time coming, after I don't know how many Sundays in the library, trying to get to this point here," she said, adding she has faced "a lot of cramming, a lot of crying, a lot of studying. I am so proud to be walking across the stage today."
Reid, a psychology major, pointed out she is from "the Cherry Hill projects" in Baltimore and wanted people to know that, "with all the bad things going on in Baltimore," there are success stories like hers.
She was sitting with her newly-made friend, Abingdon's Christian Ritchie, who, like Reid, planned to go to the University of Baltimore.
"HCC is the best place in the world to come and get your education. These people are very nice, the students are really nice," Reid said with a wide smile. "Everybody here is definitely wonderful, very easy-going. They made this journey in my life very easy."
Many graduates seemed headed to the University of Baltimore or Towson University. Jamie Muhler, of Abingdon, was among them. He said he went to a small private school in Cecil County and fit right in at HCC.
"It was the same attention that the teachers paid to me in high school. A lot of the focus here has been on watching the students succeed, not 'get the grade'," he said, explaining professors were willing to step up with help or be available after hours.
"It's been a real blessing to be here with the professors who really care about you as a student," Muhler said. After getting his diploma in history, he was moving on the University of Baltimore to study law.
"I'm kind of relieved to be graduating, honestly," he said. "It's been two years, a lot of work, a lot of sleepless nights doing homework, but it's nice to finally have it all in front of you, or soon behind you."
"I feel relieved and pretty excited," he added.
Nicole Thomas, who would be majoring in digital communications, planned to join Muhler at the University of Baltimore or, possibly, attend Towson.
"My sister graduated today, too, and we're the first in our family to graduate, so it's definitely exciting for us," she said, explaining her sister finished Salisbury University and her parents were running between both ceremonies.
"I'm excited that it's over," Thomas said about her time at HCC, but added it was "very exciting" to move on to another college.
"I'm glad I took a lot of classes on the campus. I did do some online ones," she said. "A lot of my professors were great."
James Valdes, chairman of the college's board of trustees, told the students it was important to have a broad base of knowledge and just to "show up."
"I would say, work hard and plan your vacation around your jobs, not your jobs around your vacation," Valdes said just before the students walked across the stage. "Being available when opportunity presents itself is half the success."
Although he was a chemistry major at a Jesuit college in Chicago, Valdes said he took the opportunity to study theology and other fields. He urged students to study the classics and master "the Queen's English."
"What separates the good from the great is the ability to write," he said. "The classics are out of style right now, but they are very important."
"Broaden your horizons," he also told the students. "You will get a different perspective on the world."