If there is any residual taint still attached to attending community college, Glenda Sorto wants to put it for rest, once and for all.
“Never let the community-college stigma get to you. The students here are getting quality educations – you’re getting this education for a fraction of the price,” said Sorto, a speaker at one of three Northern Virginia Community College commencement exercises on Dec. 15.
The events, held on the Alexandria campus, celebrated students earning degrees and certificates over the preceding year, and were the college’s first in-person commencement ceremonies since the spring of 2019.
Sorto is a full-circle example of the power of community college. She earned an associate’s degree from Northern Virginia Community College in 2009, went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at George Mason University, and now is on the counseling faculty of NOVA’s Woodbridge campus.
(Sorto was a student at the Alexandria campus, and returning there to deliver an address is “almost like going back in time,” she said. “I used to spend my days here, sometimes my nights.”)
Sorto was among the inaugural group of students in the college’s Pathways to Baccalaureate initiative, which aims to smooth the transition to a four-year university.
“I was fortunate to have helpful counselors who motivated me. It was so helpful to have the support,” she said. “If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
(All three commencement exercises, which were open to family, friends and the public, featured speakers who had begun their higher-education experience at the community college, gone on to earn additional degrees and then returned to join the staff there.)
Northern Virginia Community College president Anne Kress told the students it was time for a celebration.
“This is your moment,” she said, asking students to move their tassels from the right to the left to signify their new status as graduates.
“You’ve been working for this, you’ve been waiting for this,” she said. “You have persevered through the pandemic. You are amazing, inspiring, bold and brilliant.”
It was a theme echoed by Ron Gill, vice chair of the Northern Virginia Community College board, who praised the “undeniable perseverance of students” through the COVID crisis that begin during the spring 2020 term.
And, like Sorto, he said the college was doing the commonwealth proud by serving as “an education destination of choice” for students, many of them the first in their families to attend college – and many earning degrees and certificates in in-demand professions ranging from health care to information technology.
At the afternoon ceremony, Kress urged the new graduates to take the time to thank their families, college staff and others who helped in their journey. “They believed in you at every single turn,” she said.
And, Kress said, students needed to step back and observe the big picture of this moment.
“Take a breath to reflect on all your degree means,” she said. “Take that moment, breathe it in, be proud of yourself.”
Northern Virginia Community College is Virginia’s largest institution of higher education. Traditional spring commencement exercises earlier this year were held online due to pandemic conditions.