Steppingstone to a better life


More than 550 graduates celebrate their success so far, and their bright plans for the future

May 23, 2007|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

After Flavia Oleniewski completed her associate's degree program at Howard Community College, she said didn't apply to transfer to any bachelor's degree programs "because I didn't have any money."

Then, two weeks ago, she found out she had earned the national Jack Kent Cooke scholarship for transfer students, which will pay full tuition, books and living expenses for her to attend the four-year school of her choice.

Oleniewski, 30, who had deferred her college education for a decade for family and financial reasons, quickly made arrangements to attend the University of Baltimore to study corporate communications.

"I'm still in shock," she said. "I'm really excited. Everything has kind of fit together."

A mixture of students who started straight out of high school and those who took nontraditional educational paths were among the 561 graduates who collected their diplomas under a white tent on the Columbia campus Friday.

Keynote speaker Padraic M. Kennedy, the first president of the Columbia Association, talked about people who had inspired him. The list included Sargent Shriver, who hired Kennedy as one of the first staff members of the Peace Corps, Columbia founder James W. Rouse, and HCC's outgoing president, Mary Ellen Duncan.

He told the graduates to emulate those individuals' spirit of optimism, willingness to serve others, ability to inspire people and belief that people can make a difference when they work together.

"Live [life] vigorously and well," he told them. "Have a good life."

Travis Anthony of Columbia, one of two student speakers, said he was inspired to help others and work for the cause of a clean environment during his time in HCC's James W. Rouse Scholars leadership and honors program.

He said he had the grades to attend a number of four-year schools, but he chose HCC because "I wanted to explore career options. ... I had no idea what my major was."

A study-abroad trip to Scotland, in particular, led to a desire to work on expanding the use of alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels.

"I've learned there is more to an education than earning credits," he said. "It's about making a difference during your lifetime."

Student speaker Elizabeth Kudirka honored Duncan for nine years of building HCC's campus, programs and reputation.

Kudirka's mention of a larger Starbucks that recently opened as part of a new student services building drew the most applause, but she also noted Duncan's accessibility and quiet effectiveness.

School and county officials also took opportunities throughout the ceremony to praise Duncan, who will retire June 1.

"She is intrepid, relentless, unabashed to ask for what she needs and she will work her earrings off to get what she needs for HCC," said U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. She was at the commencement to receive an honorary degree, as were longtime HCC supporters Joanne T. and Michael W. Davis.

The senator then turned her focus back to the graduating class, stating, "I know this has been a long, hard journey."

She noted those students who were the first in their family to graduate, who balanced work and family life and who took jobs they didn't like to support their education.

She also thanked the graduates' friends and family members, recognizing "whoever held your hand during the dark and trying days."

Dawn Meushaw's sons - a sophomore at Towson University and a soon-to-be HCC freshman - offered their support by quizzing their mother with flashcards.

Meushaw, of Mount Airy, said that after 15 years as a day-care provider, she was ready for a new career. She earned a certification in massage therapy from the Baltimore School of Massage and then earned an associate's degree in health care at HCC.

Meushaw, 43, said she loved going to class, learning new things and talking to grown-ups instead of children all day. "Probably the biggest challenge was making the time," she said. "If one of my kids needed something, I put my stuff aside."

She has been working for a little more than a year as the front desk coordinator for the Image Recovery Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She hopes to get a job on a hospital staff.

She said she was proud to have her sons and her young nieces see her earn a degree. "It shows them you never give up, no matter how late in life," she said.

Oleniewski, who just moved to Catonsville from Columbia, also said her path to college was not an easy one. She came to the United States when she was 14 and spoke no English. She graduated from Springbrook High School in Silver Spring in 1996.

She returned to Brazil for two years to care for her father, who was terminally ill, and when she returned, she said she did not have the money or the grades to attend college.

She started attending HCC in 1999, and then stopped before returning full time for the past three semesters while holding a full-time job managing the frame shop at Jo-Ann Fabric and Crafts in Towson.

Her straight A's, dedication to education and financial need earned her HCC's nomination for the Cooke Scholarship. The scholarship is administered by a foundation started upon the death of Cooke, the former owner of the Washington Redskins football team who made his fortune in radio, television and newspapers.

The scholarship is up to $30,000 and it is the largest scholarship in the country for community college transfer students. Out of 723 applications, 51 students nationwide received the award.

Oleniewski said she will miss some of her professors, who inspired her and helped her map out a new career path.

Paraphrasing HCC's motto, she said, "I am full proof you can get there from here."

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