From education to employment

Renewing the future

I’m just back from my annual college commencement circuit, when I have the opportunity to speak to the graduating classes of community colleges. This month I traveled to Nebraska and Texas to address graduates at Central Community College and McLennan Community College, respectively. Commencement is special time, and I am honored and flattered to be invited to speak and share the important day with our graduates and their families and friends.

It’s certainly fun adorning my academic robe and hood and marching in the processional to the stage. The pomp and circumstance is important and reflects time-honored values of marking achievement and scholarship. And watching families and friends sitting in audience react as prospective graduates file in never fails to inspire.

But what I enjoy the most about commencement is watching the terrific diversity represented by the students who walk the stage as they receive their diplomas and certificates. It is both a reminder and an affirmation of the continuity and strength of a nation constantly being renewed through educational achievement. As I noted in my address to the graduates: “Today is not just a personal triumph—it is a victory for our entire nation. You now join the ranks of those who continue the legacy of educational achievement.” With each new diploma and certificate granted, the future of the Republic is assured for the next generation.

What is most transformative and moving about community college commencement for me is when the mothers and fathers walk the stage. Their children scream and holler from the audience—”we love you, Mom,” or “way to go, Dad.” It is hard for many of us to imagine the myriad challenges of pursing a college education while working and raising a family at the same time. And yet, hundreds of thousands of individuals take on the challenges, sacrificing and striving each and every day to improve their fortunes and those of their families through education. I always come away with spirits high, and a renewed commitment to carry the torch for our community colleges.

The United States depends upon helping each and every successive generation to achieve and contribute talent and energy to our economy. We have invested handsomely in creating a community college system that is second to none when it comes to creating skilled and competent workers. While spread across 1,200 colleges, all are united in mission and purpose, and entrusted with an incredibly important and noble calling. Community colleges are at “ground zero” in this transformation. That’s good news for all of us here in the United States.

We know that we must double the number of college graduates in the United States – just to remain even with the numbers reached in the 1970s. It is not a luxury, nor an option, frankly. But watching the graduates cross the stage I am confident we’ll get there in time.

J. Noah Brown is the president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees and the author of First in the World: Community Colleges and America’s Future. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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