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May 20

MCC celebrates commencement with enrollment and completion on the rise

Laquita Staton stood on the concourse of the second level of Baxter Arena, overlooking the procession of Metropolitan Community College graduates as they filed in while “Pomp and Circumstance” played. With a dozen roses tucked in her arm and a congratulatory card in hand, she gushed about her finance-minded sister, Ashley. 

“When I called her yesterday, she said she couldn’t talk long because she was doing her homework,” Laquita said of her little sister. “I’m really proud of her because she has worked so hard to be able to walk across this stage today. She’s the second in my family to graduate with a college degree. These roses are for her.”

Ashley Staton was among the 834 MCC students who walked across the stage over the course of two commencement ceremonies on Friday. By the time the 2023-24 academic year officially wraps up at the close of the summer quarter, more than 2,100 (estimated) will complete MCC academic programs. 

The positive energy of an MCC commencement is unique. There is no “wrong time” to celebrate. MCC President Randy Schmailzl encourages guests to celebrate their grads as their names are called. The boisterous applause throughout is fittingly emphatic. The 2023-24 academic year, in addition to being the College’s 50th anniversary, closes out a time at MCC that saw an 8% rise in enrollment and around 400 additional students finish their degree or certificate programs than last year. 

Also noteworthy was participation in dual enrollment programs by Nebraska high school students, who can take classes at MCC tuition free through the 2024-25 academic year. Official numbers won’t be available until the close of the summer quarter, but more than 8,000 Nebraska high school students took in excess of 110,000 credit hours at MCC in 2023-24. That translates to a minimum savings of nearly $7.5 million in college tuition. 

Every student who walked the stage (or chose not to) had a special reason(s) that brought them to MCC. A common theme among many who articulated their experience at the College said they received support from faculty and staff that made a positive difference. Whether their time at MCC began during high school — 140 Millard Public Schools Early College students alone completed their MCC academic program during their high school graduation year — right after or later in life, students felt like they had people who invested in them at MCC after they made the choice to invest in themselves.

James Henley, 42, had a 20-year gap between the first class he took at MCC as a young man and the last class he took in middle age to finish his associate degree in carpentry. He earned credits for the experience he gained in the workforce between his stints at MCC, but he needed something extra to finish his associate degree.

“I enjoyed the classroom setting. The teachers were very good, helpful and informative. It helped my confidence knowing that I had people who were in my corner,” Henley said. 

Henley said he is considering getting his bachelor’s degree in construction management and has always thought about relocating from Omaha. With an associate degree in hand now, he said can look into moving more seriously.

“Now there’s a paper trail that I can always take with me,” Henley said. “It means a lot to me. It just shows you there’s never an end. You can always keep going.”

Ruth Guardiola, 33, is a mother of three. She enrolled at a college immediately after finishing high school and had a “terrible experience.” The school she attended no longer exists, but the debt she went into from attending it certainly hung around. 

Guardiola had two things to prove when she decided to start taking Automotive Collision Technology courses in 2021 — to herself and her kids that she could do the work, and that there’s a place for women in body shops. 

“I wanted to learn how to fix cars and have always had an interest in that, but we were told at a very young age that’s not where women belong,” Guardiola said. 

Guardiola admitted her 14-year-old daughter was mad that she was at her mom’s graduation instead of the Cinco de Mayo parade on Friday evening. Her mom hoped, in time, her daughter would realize that the time to celebrate Cinco de Mayo is predictable; the right time to go back to school doesn’t fit as neatly on a calendar.

“I hope she can look back to today and understand that mom did a lot of work to get here,” Guardiola said.

Alejandro Salome-Garcia of Fremont may be a source of encouragement that Guardiola’s daughter will eventually see the bigger picture. The youngest of three children, Salome-Garcia is a first-generation college student and is finishing his associate degree in criminal justice at MCC. He plans to attend Bellevue University to complete his bachelor’s next. He wants to work with juveniles on probation. 

“I did this for my mom. She’s a single mom and raised all three of us. I saw all her hard work and dedication. I love her and I’m glad that she’s mom. She encouraged me to go to school, and I’m proud of myself for doing it,” Salome-Garcia said. 

Jacob Knapp, 23, grew up in Grand Island and said he had a hard time in high school, challenged by a reading disability. Finishing his time at MCC on the honor roll was a big accomplishment. Knapp credits the smaller class sizes he found at MCC and Ryan Stamm, a Disability Support Services counselor, with making it a good experience for him. He plans to go to the University of Nebraska Omaha to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work next. 

“My biggest class at MCC had no more than 30 people in it. At other schools, all the gen ed classes have hundreds of people in them,” Knapp said. “All of my instructors were amazing. They gave me extra time on tests. And Ryan Stamm is just a great guy. I really like working with him.”

In addition to the College’s associate degree/certificate programs, three special guests from a community partnership program also walked the stage at MCC commencement. Two years ago, a group of young adult students in Autism Action Partnership’s Prosper Academy, an in-residence, independent living skills program, started taking classes from the academy’s curriculum at the MCC South Omaha Campus. The goal of taking the classes from their program at MCC was to provide them with an authentic college experience and help them learn the independent living skills of managing your own schedule, arranging their own transportation and maintaining employment while taking classes. 

Lizzy Lanspa, an AAP activities coordinator, was feeling the emotions before the program even started. All three who walked the stage (and an additional two who did not attend commencement) will move into their own residence at the conclusion of the program. It’s a result she wouldn’t have predicted two years ago.  

“I’m already getting teary-eyed,” Lanspa said after leaving her students to join MCC completers in the lineup before the procession into the arena. “They came into the program as adults, but to see them really thriving has been radically life-changing for me. They’ve changed my perception on what I think an adult is and what I think independent living is. It’s just been amazing to watch them grow, learn new things and be proud of themselves for what they’ve done. MCC has been an amazing partner.”

Laquita Staton wished she had a bouquet of roses for all the graduates because of her appreciation for their individual journeys to the stage last week. 

“I’m proud of everybody who walked even though I obviously don’t know the majority of these people. Anytime somebody is graduating — elementary school, junior high, high school or college — I think that’s a big thing because a lot of people drop out or can lose momentum. I’m grateful to see so many people succeeding and living out their dreams,” Staton said.