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Bergen Community College Valedictorian Jessica Bonilla, of Elmwood Park. (Photo submitted)
Posted: Friday July 15, 2011, 1:45 PM
By Bergen.com

U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios told the Bergen Community College Class of 2011 to continue their educations, put family first and consider public service at some point in their careers during the College’s 42nd Commencement at the Izod Center in the Meadowlands Sports Complex, in East Rutherford.

The 2,139 candidates for graduation make the class of 2011 the largest in the College’s history. The class of 2011 also reflects Bergen’s diversity with graduates representing more than 100 countries and ranging in age to 81 years old. (Joe Decandido, an 81-year-old Tenafly resident whose first attempt to go to college was derailed by military service in the Korean War more than 61 years ago, graduated next to his 19-year-old niece Maria Misko. Both were members of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honors society of community college students. Mr. Decandido plans to become a teacher.) The class of 2011 includes graduates from August 2010, December 2010 and May 2011. More than half of the students are receiving associate in science degrees. The remaining students split between associate in arts degrees and associate in applied science degrees.

Ms. Rios said community colleges are a critical component of President Barack Obama’s “Winning the Future” initiative to give the United States the largest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

“I always say you are not competing with the person sitting next to you, you are competing with the person in China or Europe or anywhere else in the world. This initiative is focused on out-innovating, out-educating and out-building the rest of the world - and this starts with graduates like you,” the 43rd Treasurer of the U.S. said. “I don’t think people realize the extent and rapid growth rate of community colleges. They are a large part of our educational system, enrolling more than 8 million students. You can see that right here at Bergen with 17,000 enrollees in the academic program, which is larger than many four year schools.” 

The College honored 41 graduating students with Academic Excellence Awards for maintaining perfect 4.0 grade point averages, as well as the 67 graduating students who are members of Phi Theta Kappa, the international academic honor society of community colleges. Forty-four students graduated with commendations for studying as part of the Honors Program.

Bergen President Dr. G. Jeremiah Ryan told the students they have distinguished themselves in many ways, including, in some cases, acceptance to the top four-year colleges and universities. Class of 2011 graduates will attend Columbia and New York Universities, Stevens Institute of Technology and Ohio State as well as top New Jersey schools including, Rutgers, N.J.I.T., Montclair and Rowan.

Valedictorian Jessica Bonilla, of Elmwood Park, told classmates to “keep chasing your dreams no matter what stands in your way. You cannot change the past, but your actions can change the future.”

A native Honduran, Ms. Bonilla began her education in a rural hillside village school but moved with 13 family members to the U.S. to escape “the vast poverty and hunger overtaking many Latin American countries.” After graduating from high school in 2002, she became dispirited after rejection by a college because she was not yet a citizen and lacked proper documentation.

“For years, I was made to believe education was out of my reach. For years, there were tears in my eyes and for years I hated my life because I stopped chasing my dreams and I felt I was a failure,” she said. Working two or three jobs to pay her tuition, Ms. Bonilla recalled coming to school from her work and sleeping in her car in the College parking lot before classes because she was so tired.

Today, Ms. Bonilla, 27, became the first member of her family to earn a college degree. An honors graduate with a perfect 4.0 grade point average, she also is a member of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honors society for community colleges. Ms. Bonilla plans to transfer to NYU or Seton Hall for the fall semester and to go to law school.

“My story proves that no matter how difficult the personal and financial challenges may be, by one’s desire and discipline success is always possible,” she said. “Undoubtedly, Bergen Community College has been a crucial step for my success and has helped shape me into the woman I am today.  Thanks to all the opportunities that are available at Bergen, which I took full advantage of, today, I am standing here before you. However, I am not different from any of you sitting here today…This is not just my story. This is your story. This is Bergen’s story of diversity.”

Salutatorian Christine Jones, of Teaneck, also credited Bergen with opening doors for her and her family support for her success.

In addition to achieving a perfect 4.0 grade point average, Ms. Jones also is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa, a NJ STARS student, and was president of the Honors Association at Bergen. She is continuing her education at NYU in the fall and plans to become an early childhood-special education teacher.

“Two years ago, I walked through the doors of Bergen Community College, apprehensive about what lay ahead. Everything was new to me. Like many other students, I had dreams of far-away colleges in distant places, not realizing the wealth of opportunities that Bergen, the college next-door, had to offer to me,” she said. “A bit reluctantly, I got involved and ended up meeting some amazing professors, faculty, and students, who really helped to shape my experience at Bergen. My time at Bergen helped to expand my horizons, challenge my abilities, and explore greater possibilities. Many doors of opportunity were opened to me.”

Ms. Rios advised the graduates to continue in school to get a bachelor’s degree and even a master’s or law degree, studying “whatever it is that drives you, and do it while you have the time, while you are still young, while your brain is still elastic. And then once you get that advanced degree, then take some time for yourself.”

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