Overcoming Challenges and Growth: Eastern Iowa Community Colleges’ (EICC) Graduates Reflect on Their Time at Clinton, Scott and Muscatine Community Colleges
When most people look back on their college days, it’s filled with fond memories of group study sessions at the library, going head-to head in intramural sports leagues or laughing alongside colleagues in campus club activities.
However, for the EICC Class of 2021, they will look back on their time in college…a bit differently.
Unforeseen challenges by the COVID-19 pandemic forced the college community to pivot, almost overnight. Online classes, meetings held via Zoom and dealing with faulty Wi-Fi connection became part of the new normal. However, to define these students’ time during the pandemic solely through the lens of academics would be to overlook the numerous details that humanize and differentiate each of their experiences.
More than 900 students graduated from Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, celebrating with virtual commencement ceremonies on May, 13, 14 and 17.
Staring thoughtfully into the camera in each ceremony’s opening speech, Chancellor Don Doucette expressed this sentiment to the graduates, “No graduating class in memory has overcome as many obstacles as you to get here—to earn your diploma despite the disruptions, challenges and suffering caused by this pandemic.”
“You are not only graduates, but survivors. You have shown perseverance, flexibility, adaptability and courage—traits that will serve you well in facing future challenges.”
Many of those same buzzwords were reiterated throughout the student commencement speeches. The past academic year was one in which students learned that perseverance, flexibility, adaptability and courage were muscles that had to be flexed time and time again, dealing with ever-changing protocols, canceled events and learning how to be part of a community, despite being oftentimes apart.
Because of this, these graduates are ready to ride into the next phase of life with a renewed sense of purpose.
Muscatine Community College (MCC) student commencement speaker, Dale Montagna, is no stranger to overcoming his fair share of challenges. After dropping out of high school and later welcoming a son into his life, Montagna knew he needed to make a change. Upon receiving his High School Equivalency Diploma and enrolling in classes at MCC, he jumped on every opportunity to get involved.
“The community that MCC provided was unlike anything I would’ve imagined—I guess that’s why they call it a community college. I know that MCC has provided me with the skills and confidence needed to excel in my new career path,” said Montagna.
His advice is simple: Never let anyone tell you you can’t do something. As long as you’re willing to work for it, you can achieve it.
Star athlete. Active community member. High school student. Employee. Clinton Community College (CCC) student.
You read that right. At a mere 18 years of age, Natalie Ehlinger capped her graduation with three degrees; a high school diploma from Maquoketa High School, as well as an Associate of Arts Degree and an Associate of Science Degree from CCC. As a concurrent student, Ehlinger was able to dually enroll in college classes at CCC, starting her freshman year of high school. Remarkably, she graduated from high school as a junior in college.
Ehlinger credits her success to having a growthmindset, as well as keeping a positive attitude.
“The pandemic helped us see that learning takes place in many different ways and challenged each of us to make the most out of our academic success, from outside the traditional classroom,” said Ehlinger, addressing CCC students as a virtual commencement speaker. “We have mastered what generations and classes before us have never dreamt possible.”
With a wide smile, Ehlinger explains that despite the world turning upside down, the college formed a strong community of learners.
“No matter what life throws at us, we are living proof that you can never give up. The only way we can make a difference in this world is to stay strong,” said Ehlinger.
“We were put through it all it seemed, but because of it all, we came out stronger and smarter,” said Scott Community College (SCC) student commencement speaker, Morgan Hemmen.
Hemmen credits her time in college as one of development and growth; learning not only how to be mentally smart, but mentally strong too. She, as well as many other virtual commencement speakers, took the time to thank her advisers, instructors, family and friends for getting her past the finish line.
“All of us had to deal with different struggles,” said Hemmen. “Some had to figure out how to make e-learning possible–they may have had to rent a laptop from the school or find somewhere to go to use the internet when everything was closed or shut down. Luckily, we did have help.”
For MCC student commencement speaker, Daniel Salazar, his graduation marked a longtime dream of his grandfather.
In 1973, Salazar’s grandfather immigrated from Mexico and Texas to Muscatine, Iowa, with his wife and eight siblings. He was described as a hardworking man, even juggling three jobs at one time to provide for his family. Naturally, once Salazar grew up, he knew he wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps— working at Kraft Heinz as a maintenance worker.
However, it was one conversation with his grandfather that changed the trajectory of his future.
“Mijo, look at my hands, look at my fingers,” said Salazar, paraphrasing his grandfather’s words. “Not a single one of them is straight after being broken, hit and damaged. You can do so much more. You need to go to school so you don’t have it as hard as I did.”
So, that’s just what he did. Sharing this story with all the virtual commencement attendees, Salazar is ready to make his grandfather proud and become his own success story.
“The reality I want you all to realize is that ordinary people like you and I can do extraordinary things.”
It’s these traits—perseverance, flexibility, adaptability and courage—that will serve our alumni well in facing future challenges.
Congratulations to all 2021 graduates!