The annual commencement ceremony at Waubonsee Community College is always a highlight, as the goals and dreams that students have worked so hard toward – with the support of dedicated faculty and staff – are achieved and celebrated. This year is especially memorable as we celebrate our 50th anniversary.

As we watch hundreds of graduates walk across the stage, we all think of the many before them who have done the same thing for five decades. I often think of the courage – the leap of faith – that our first group of students took when they enrolled in a brand new community college 50 years ago, entrusting an unknown and new entity with their higher education.

The first Waubonsee graduation was held in the Freeman Room of the Aurora YMCA on June 5, 1968. There were 16 graduates. Classes for the 1968-1969 academic year were held at the Administrative Center in Aurora and both East and West Aurora High Schools. The second graduation was held on June 12, 1969, with 90 students receiving degrees. That growth has continued in the years since.

Fast forward nearly five decades, and our college has grown to four campuses. Last year, a record number of graduates – 363 – participated in the ceremony, which marked a day where a total of 1,166 degrees were conferred. We’ve grown in so many ways since that first small but courageous graduating class. Today we have conferred more than 23,358 degrees since that first commencement ceremony in 1968.

And while we have grown and things have changed, who we are – our core - has remained the same. The courage, boldness and perseverance of that first group of students are still ingrained in our students today. We see it in the first generation students determined to do something no one in their family has done before, in the parents returning to school to pursue a degree and a better way of life for their children, and in the thousands of other students who choose to take that next step toward achieving their goals when they enroll at Waubonsee.

It is because of those who are determined to learn, to grow, to change, that we exist. The constant support of our greater community, and their belief that access to education empowers a community and enhances the quality of life for all, allows us to thrive. For 50 years, our presence has been a testament to the values of our community and to the students who enroll here on their path to making the most of what life has to offer.

When our Field House fills to the rafters with applause for the hundreds of graduates walking across the stage at commencement this month, I’ll be thinking gratefully about all the scholars before them that blazed that trail, and about the commitment of our faculty, staff and community that has made it possible.

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