Risley speaks at Five Commencements in Four States

As Dr. Rod Risley, Executive Director and CEO of Phi Theta Kappa, served as commencement speaker at five ceremonies this spring, the common themes were clear – all over the U.S., community college graduations symbolized new beginnings, second chances and that the American Dream is alive and well.

Dr. Rod Risley delivers the commencement address at Northeast Community College in Nebraska.

Dr. Risley is pictured with Tau Mu officers and advisors, Jayde Lynn Scott, Taylor Murray, Jena Freese, Kristi Peters, Dr. Jack Oden and Vicente Cortez.

At Bishop State Community College’s commencement Dr. Risley tells graduates that completion matters. (Photo courtesy of Mike Brantley)

At Bishop State Community College’s commencement held in Alabama on May 7, Risley told the story of Phi Theta Kappa member Breanea Loveless. Finding herself a single mother at the age of 14, she refused to become a victim and instead enrolled in classes and worked at two jobs to support her daughter.

“I am proud to share that the University of South Alabama has awarded Breanea a full-tuition scholarship to study electrical engineering,” Risley said. “Well done Breanea. I congratulate all of the students here today for completing what they started.”

Learn more about the commencement at Bishop State Community College online.

On May 8 Risley addressed the graduates of Enterprise State Community College, also in Alabama, explaining that he sometimes became frustrated by what we, as a society, seem to value and not value.

“We value professional athletes more than our instructors. We value being entertained more than we do learning,” he said. “We value buying more things rather than providing more for those in need. We value knowing what people are doing to each other rather than for each other.”

“I feel ours is a society and a culture that promotes mediocrity,” Risley told the graduates, “Make this a community where being smart is valued. It’s cool to be smart. Don’t you ever apologize for that!”

He cited data that revealed in less than four years, two-thirds of jobs in the United States will require a post-secondary degree or credential.

Risley also celebrated the graduates, who often complete despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

He shared the story of Phi Theta Kappa member Vicente Cortez, who was home-schooled and completed his GED at Enterprise State. He served as president of his Phi Theta Kappa chapter, leading Tau Mu to Five-Star status, all the while caring for his chronically ill mother and working part-time on the weekends — using tip-money to pay for his tuition. Cortez was honored as Alabama’s New Century Scholar and one of 20 members of the prestigious All-USA Community College Academic Team, receiving nearly $5,000 in scholarships.

Dr. Jack Oden, who served as advisor of the Tau Mu Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa for 25 years, served as Honorary Marshall for the commencement. While in Enterprise Risley also had lunch with incoming and outgoing Tau Mu officers, alumna and current advisor Kristi Peters, and Oden, who led the chapter to the Most Distinguished Chapter title twice.

The commencement ceremony for Northeast Community College in Nebraska was held in the college gymnasium that seated 2,500, with 500 guests seated in a separate room to watch a live camera feed.

“The college president told me as we were about to enter the gym that ticket scalping was taking place – with family members anxious to witness the event firsthand,” Risley said, “While I don’t endorse scalping, how cool is it that family members wanted so much to be in the room where a commencement was to take place?”

He praised the perseverance of graduates to complete their degrees and certificates, noting they are the exception to the rule and the answer to the needs of tomorrow’s global economy.

“Nationally only 15-25 percent of students enrolled in community colleges earn their credential or degree within six years,” he said. “The United States has fallen from number one among the 34 industrialized economies in the world with the highest percentage of its citizens with a higher education credential to number 16.”

In response to President Barack Obama’s call to action to increase credentialing rates, Phi Theta Kappa developed the Community College Completion Corps, which champions the cause of college completion.

Prior to the commencement at Scott Community College in Iowa on May 21, Risley attended a brunch celebration for faculty and staff at which the Phi Theta Kappa chapter was recognized for winning a College Project Award during NerdNation 2014, the Society’s Annual Convention in Orlando.

A record number of students received degrees during the commencement, with Phi Theta Kappa’s chapter president, Amanda Sue Peterlin, who also serves as Iowa Regional Vice President, speaking on behalf of the class. She received nearly a full scholarship, including a Phi Theta Kappa scholarship, to study art education at Augustana College.

Phi Theta Kappa members decked in stoles and medallions were asked to stand and be recognized at the ceremony, which Regional Coordinator Sima Dabir also attended.

Risley told graduates that the gift of an education they received had “strings attached.”

“A true scholar doesn’t merely acquire or receive, but gives,” he said. “It is not enough to know or possess knowledge. Each of you has a responsibility to share your knowledge acquired here so that all might know. You must improve the quality of life for those who cannot help themselves.”

Read more about the Scott Community College commencement in local news coverage.

In contrast to the rural communities where the Alabama, Nebraska and Iowa commencements took place, on May 22 Risley addressed an audience of 3,000 at the graduation held for Hudson County Community College at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in downtown Newark.

Phi Theta Kappa member Diana Angelo received a standing ovation after giving the valedictorian address on behalf of the student body.

“We’ve had students from every race, every country…We’ve had single mothers, we’ve had people in the military. Many of us are the first in our families (to graduate college),” Angelo said. “Reaching the top means something different to everyone, but I know we all got there. I want you to remember what you accomplished here.”

Risley told the story of member Maritza Beniques, a native of Puerto Rico. With two children, one of whom will be graduating from HCCC in May 2015, Maritza dedicated most of her adult life to providing for them. Until 2010, she worked at various jobs and would be offered promotions over the years that she could not accept because she did not meet the requirement of having a college degree. After losing her job in 2010, Maritza found it nearly impossible to obtain work. She enrolled at HCCC with the goal of becoming a registered nurse.

“Through several scholarships and help from family members, Maritza was able to make it through and complete her degree. The thought of becoming the first of her mother’s children to graduate from college motivated her through the toughest times,” Risley said. “Maritza has been accepted to the New Jersey City University bachelor of science in nursing program, and plans to attend in the fall.”

Risley advised graduates that there has never been a better time to be a community college graduate.

“Ivy League schools across this country are aggressively recruiting these community college students,” he told the audience. “Because we now have the data to say that if you give these people a seat at the table at a selected senior college, they will perform as well, if not better, than students who attended that senior institution exclusively.”

Risley noted that Pell Grant recipients from the college were transferring to Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Rutgers and the University of California, Berkley. Following commencement he observed that 80 percent of the students at Hudson County Community College were the recipients of Pell Grants.

“They are so hungry for opportunity, for recognition and for someone to believe in them and guide them,” Risley said. “They are not victims, they are not takers.’

“This is just a small example of how providing resources and access to college can build a better country for all of us.”

See full coverage of the Hudson Community College commencement online, and view photos from the event.

Risley added that the 2014 commencement season comes at a time when completion matters more than ever before. Students who complete their degrees or certificates will earn an average of $500,000 more over the course of their careers than their peers who did not complete. In addition, individuals with credentials are less likely to become unemployed than their co-workers who did not earn credentials.

Learn more about Phi Theta Kappa’s Community College Completion Corps at the Society’s C4 website.

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