Chris Gray, Ph.D.

Founding President, Erie County Community College

It’s hard to believe that we are almost to our second annual graduation ceremony, but it’s true!  We will celebrate our next round of graduates on Saturday, June 1 at 10:00am here at Erie West.  Applications to graduate have been filed, and our students are working hard to finish this final week as strongly as they can.

Graduation can feel like a single event, a relatively short ceremony, taking place over the course of a few hours.  It’s so much more than that, though.  It’s highly symbolic and has as its prime objective honoring and celebrating the students who have worked so hard for years before that triumphant walk across the stage.  It’s the culmination of a lot of time and a lot of work, but it’s also a physical manifestation of what began, at some point, as an idea that turned into a belief.

I’ve said this many times, and I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground when I say that the power of belief is transformative.  Students come to join the EC3 family because they want something different a certificate, a degree, an update to their existing skills, etc.  At some point, this desire for something different morphs into a belief that they can change their lives.  Eventually, they complete their educational goal and do just that.

There are many more steps than that, obviously, and I want to focus briefly on one of the side effects, if you will, of educational achievement: the cultivation of a growth mindset.  Psychologist Carol Dweck coined this term in her book Mindset, and it refers to the belief that our abilities and intellect are not set or fixed in nature; instead, we can grow and develop them with time, study, effort, and practice.  The idea that learning is an iterative process and that we can become better at it through dedication and perseverance feels almost like common knowledge to those of us who have spent any degree of time working in higher education.  It’s anything but, though.

Many of our students are shocked to learn this about themselves.  Previous educational experiences and feedback have convinced them that they can’t or shouldn’t expect to be successful in school.  They’ve been told that college is too hard and that they don’t have the ability.  And that conditioning can be hard to overturn, but that’s part of our mission:  emboldening our students with the belief that they can and do have the ability to improve themselves and change their lives.

At some point, a shift happens.  Success on a tough assignment, perhaps, is the catalyst that ignites a tiny spark.  Passing a course that felt impossible fans that spark a bit more, and it turns into a faintly glowing ember.  Completing that first semester with passing grades expands the ember into a full-fledged flame.  And then, as success builds on success, a conflagration of belief explodes outward, engulfing and incinerating the doubts that previously held them back.  They believe in themselves, and they have proven to themselves that they CAN do this – that they do belong here.  They are, to use modern slang, fire.

And that, readers, is why graduation is such a big deal.  We celebrate what we can’t see.  We celebrate the belief and the change and the growth.  We celebrate the late nights pouring over course texts.  We celebrate the tears and the frustrations and the victories and the work.  We celebrate our next group of alumni who have changed us as we helped them to change themselves. We celebrate it all, and it deserves to be celebrated loudly.

What is even better about this year’s celebration is First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden and Pennsylvania Auditor General Tim DeFoor joining us as speakers. Both of them, tremendous advocates of community colleges, we’re excited to have them join us to welcome over 80 graduates as alumni. We look forward to sharing more about the festivities in the coming weeks.

I’ll be honest:  it’s an overwhelmingly amazing day.  I’m so excited to spend it with our students, and I know they deserve every ounce of celebration headed their way. I hope that you’ll join us as we recognize our graduates.

Our community:  your college.