A little less than an hour before Garden City Community College’s 2018 commencement ceremony began, the parking lot outside Conestoga Arena at the Dennis Perryman Athletic Complex was nearing capacity.

People streamed into the building, then into the gymnasium, some towing bouquets or balloons, others towing children. Grandparents held onto loved ones or slowly climbed stairs. Families rearranged their seating order. The room buzzed.

Later, as students in brown robes filed in the room to "Pomp and Circumstance," scattered shouts and whoops fizzled through the audience. The nearly 400 students made up the college’s 98th class, and their families were soaked in celebration. Parents held phones up to snap pictures of their kids. Students waved or laughed or grinned goofily. One boy held two thumbs up to an anonymous friend or family member in the audience.

After the students sat down, staff and administrators honored Cecil O’Brate, the Garden City farmer, businessman and philanthropist that heads American Warrior, Inc. and the charitable O’Brate Foundation, as a distinguished guest and introduced Blake Flanders, president and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents, as the commencement speaker.

Flanders addressed the class as individuals, encouraging education through technology and public service and gratitude towards those that held graduates up. He said the college’s graduates, armed with their associate’s degrees, would have access to better jobs, and statistically would contribute more to their community and be more involved in civic engagement.

As students moved forward with their academic and professional careers, Flanders urged them to not forget where they came from.

“My final piece of advice is to say to give back part of your time or treasure…” Flanders said. “We know most students will not identify with their community college as they continue their education. I’m asking you today to remember Garden City Community College and this community that has supported your education … Don’t forget this college.”

At any point in the evening, attendees chattered and restless children cried out loudly. The gym was full of the sounds of the future, regardless of age.

Both GCCC President Herbert Swender and Vice President of Instruction and Student Services Ryan Ruda recognized exceptional students, including Berenice Mendoza, a first generation college student who commuted three hours daily to and from GCCC from her home in Stanton County and volunteers at a nursing home on weekends.

Petar Ivusic Araya and Bailee Muxlow-Volk were recognized as the college’s 2018 Outstanding Students. Muxlow-Volk, a Canadian sophomore on the GCCC softball team, will continue her education and hopes to become an occupational therapist. Ivusic Araya, a Chilean sophomore, hopes to continue his collegiate soccer career in Georgia.

GCCC also recognized students earning more than their associate’s degree. Fifteen students, many of whom were GCCC alumni, were awarded their bachelor’s degrees through National American University, a higher learning institution that offers online and in-person classes with college partners throughout the country.

GCCC’s 2018 class through the university was the biggest since the institutions began working together in 2014, said Ashley Salazar, NAU associate campus director at GCCC. Robert Paxton, NAU's president of external relations and strategic initiatives, presented students with their diplomas.

Among the blue NAU robes was one woman in black. The woman, GCCC alumnus and assistant softball coach Danielle Aronoff, walked onto the stage, received her hood and became the first student to earn her master’s degree through the campus’ NAU program, as well as the first to earn her master’s, bachelor’s and associate’s through the partnership.

After honoring outstanding students, Ruda announced fire science instructor Larry Pander as the year’s Outstanding Faculty member. It wasn’t the only time the college’s educators were recognized. After distributing awards, Ruda asked the audience to thank all of the college’s faculty and staff.

Flanders passed on a similar sentiment.

“It was true then and it’s true today,” Flanders said after reflecting on a past teacher. “The heart and soul of any institution of higher education is the college faculty ... Members of the faculty, I want to thank you for your contribution to the learning and growth being spread. I want you to know that your influence is critical and valued. So, thank you.”

With the formalities out of the way, Ruda presented GCCC’s class of 2018 to the people who loved and supported them most. Students from down the street and around the world stood, and the gym, full of parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, partners and loved ones gone uncategorized, erupted.


Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.