PATERSON — Passaic County Community College on Thursday celebrated its 50th anniversary in the most fitting way possible: by conferring degrees and certificates on 1,215 students.
The Class of 2018 was one of the largest in the school’s history, and it filled the auditorium not once, but twice for a pair of commencement exercises. The PCCC president, Dr. Steven M. Rose, reminded the graduates during the morning ceremony that receiving a college degree wasn’t an end, but a beginning.
“This can open a lot of doors,” Rose said, holding up a diploma. “But you’ve got to keep going. And going. And going.”
Fifty years ago, on May 17, 1968, the Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders adopted a resolution that established a community college. There was controversy almost immediately as to where the college would be located: in the suburbs or in the city?
Rose credited one of the original members of the board of trustees, Bill Pascrell, with leading the fight to put the college in Paterson. “The feeling was that it could do the most good here,” Rose said.
Classes were first held in October 1971, and Thursday marked the 46th commencement. The graduates paraded past the flags of 34 nations, representing the home countries of the Class of 2018.
Rose ticked off the census. The United States had produced the overwhelming majority of graduates, 902, he said. Next came the Dominican Republic (50), Peru (47), Mexico (21), Bangladesh (18), Colombia (15) and Jamaica (14).
Alluding to that diversity, Passaic County Freeholder Assad Akhter told the graduates that PCCC “is a college not like any other.” He called county colleges “a great American experiment” built on the idea that higher education should be within reach of everyone.
“This experiment has been a great success,” Akhter said. “When I look out into this room, this is what Passaic County looks like. This is what America looks like.”
Many students, like Ermira Roci, are immigrants and the first in their families to go to college. Roci is from Albania, and she decorated her mortarboard with the slogan “She believed that she could do so she did.”
“The ‘she’ is me,” Roci said. “I believed in myself,” and somehow, she fit in her course work while raising four children.
Another believer is Richard Cruz, 37, who is from the Dominican Republic and spoke almost no English when he enrolled in PCCC. He graduated Thursday with an associate in science degree with high honors, and is now headed to the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Beyond the language barrier, Cruz said, there was an even bigger obstacle. “I’m very shy,” he said. “I was very scared to speak in front of people.”
Danielle Petillo of Westwood said she enrolled in PCCC looking for a new sense of direction. Laid off from her fashion industry job in Manhattan, Petillo said, she originally enrolled so she could get an extension on her unemployment benefits. Now she’s finishing her degree in social work at Seton Hall University.
“It was absolutely a turning point when I came here,” Petillo said, adding that she never expected to graduate.
Arthur Johnson, at 69, was one of the oldest students to graduate. He received a certificate as an addiction specialist..
Johnson said he’s an addict who has been sober for 12 years, and that his job is to help others. Johnson said his life is “so much better” without drugs or alcohol.
“I’ve accomplished so much,” he said. “I’m enjoying this second life. You know, it’s been said that an addict gets to live a second life.”
There were three valedictorians in the Class of 2018. Shane Consalvo, a music technology major from Wayne, delivered the address during the morning commencement. Alex Medina Sosa and Katherine Tapia were co-valedictorians at the evening commencement.
Consalvo, who is headed to William Paterson to study sound engineering, plays piano and guitar and was in a band, Found Vegas, before he enrolled in PCCC. As a student at Wayne Hills High School, he’d leaned more toward fixing cars, but music technology, which teaches the latest software and studio recording techniques, turned him around.
Consalvo said his ‘aha’ moment came when he realized he could build his own recording studio at home. “It was like, ‘Wow, I can take this stuff home,’ he said.
Paterson Mayor-elect Andre Sayegh teaches history and psychology at PCCC, and he got the last word. Nodding to the parents, family and friends seated on the bleachers on one side of the gymnasium, Sayegh told the graduates to stand for a round of applause.
Everyone stood. The room filled with applause, with the students clapping for the parents, and the parents clapping for the students.
“You’re here today because you didn’t quit,” Sayegh said. “Congratulations to the Class of 2018. You are winners.”
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