Five in-person ceremonies held at college’s Burlington County campus
By ISABELLA DIAMORE
Staff Writer/The Sun
Rowan College at Burlington County (RCBC) held five in-person ceremonies at the campus quad from May 19-21 to celebrate 2020 and 2021 graduates, the first in-person ceremony in two years.
The outdoor ceremonies were split into two timeframes over the span of three days. Each day was designated to celebrate a specific school: May 19 celebrated liberal arts students, May 20 acknowledged health-science students and May 21 cited STEM students.
Six keynote speakers highlighted prominent themes from the past year, such as social injustice and political unrest.
“Working from my basement, homeschooling my children, and leading a college in which the vast majority of people were at home, it feels pretty incredible to say welcome to Rowan College of Burlington County,” said school President Dr. Michael A. Cioce on May 19.
Each ceremony had about 100 graduates in chairs properly distanced from one another behind the closed off gates of the lawn. A stage was set up for Cioce, the valedictorian, and the other speakers. Family and friends of the graduates were welcomed.
Cioce opened up the ceremony by sharing his gratitude toward the honored students and noting the accomplishment of earning a college degree.
“Our students, our faculty,and our staff reinvented how we work and learn with flexibility, patience and good nature,” Cioce said. “We have reimagined the meaning of community as we have adapted to a digital unity more quickly than I think any of us anticipated.”
Valedictorian Nicole Ceballos offered a speech to the liberal arts class. She came to America from Panama in 2017 to work as an au pair for a Mt. Laurel family and went from English as a Second Language to graduating at the top of her class with a 4.0 GPA.
“I grew up with no internet, no running water, and I had to walk 30 minutes to go to school every day, but I was lucky,” recalled Ceballos, the first in her family to graduate from college. “Some of my friends had to walk more than two hours to go to school. I was the happiest child and I didn’t know what I didn’t have.
“The first thing my host family did was bring me to RCBC to take classes and I thought, ‘What are they, loco? I can’t even speak English,’ ” Ceballos added with a laugh.
Ceballos graduated with an associate’s degree in music and inclusive education and will receive her bachelor’s in inclusive education from Rowan University.
The keynote speaker at the ceremonies was an RCBC student who spent three years there. In her speech, Lavett Ballard talked about the struggles of overcoming her disability in math and dealing with her personal issues while pursuing a degree in art.
“I had to change my plan, and as the great Dolly Parton says, ‘We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.’ So I readjusted my sails to adulting,” Ballard said. “I had a teenager from being a single mom (and) partying a little bit too much. I had a toddler and a husband.”
While Ballard’s plans to succeed took longer, she connected with the right people along the way and realized it wasn’t too late to become the famous artist she always wanted to be.
“The Class of 2021 and 2020 realize that, unlike any other class, you have to get through the bitter of life to appreciate the sweet,” Ballard said. “As my mother and my grandmother used to say, ‘Opportunities lost are never forgotten, so make the most of them when they arrive.’ That is a true key to success. Make the most of everything you encounter.”
Cara McMullen graduated from the liberal arts school with an associate’s degree in American Sign Language. She is a custodian at RCBC who worked on her degree for 32 years. And while dealing with her disabilities, McMullen finally conquered algebra after 14 years.
“You cannot give up. There are so many times I wanted to give up, but you’re never going to get it if you give up,” McMullen said.
Kateryna Zocikis is an international student from Ukraine who graduated in 2020 with an associate’s degree in psychology. Zocikis is excited to continue her education as she plans to receive her bachelor’s through the RCBC 3 + 1 program.
“It feels so great to actually come together like this; everybody’s so cheerful and happy, it’s a big moment for everybody,” she said. “A lot of people are coming from different places and it means a lot for all of them in different ways, but unites us all right now.”
About 3,500 students from the 2020 and 2021 classes graduated on campus with an associate’s degree from RCBC.