Across the country and at College of DuPage, the graduation ceremony is a powerful and emotional event.
Last spring, before officially starting my duties, I sat with our faculty and watched hundreds of hopeful and earnest faces amid the rows of students that created a great "sea of green."
I literally felt their joy and sense of accomplishment. The air was electric. The students in their decorated caps and gowns crossed the stage proudly to receive a document that provides tangible recognition for the countless hours they dedicated to their studies.
In all, College of DuPage granted 2,800 associate degrees and 2,600 certificates during the 2015-16 academic year. Over the past 50 years, this college has affected the lives of more than 1 million students.
Each year, they walk in the open doors at COD hoping to make a positive change in their lives, and most of them leave here knowing they have realized their goal.
The accomplishments among our students are many and varied. Some come to COD to complete their general education courses for transfer to partner schools such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Roosevelt University, Elmhurst College, Northern Illinois University, DePaul University, Lewis University, Benedictine University, Illinois State University, North Central College, Wheaton College, University of Illinois-Chicago, as well as Loyola University, University of Michigan, University of Iowa, Northwestern University, Purdue University, Auburn University, Columbia College, George Washington University, Harvard, Yale and many more.
Others enroll to learn new skills for current jobs, while many come here to reinvent themselves with a new career as an adult learner and, in every case, become eligible for greater professional opportunities.
I have always believed in the positive impact of higher education and the important role community colleges play in student success.
In my perspective, there is a vast difference between success, accomplishments and achievements -- words often used interchangeably.
Achievements or accomplishments can be measured and are often external and tangible "things" we can reach for and attain from the outside in.
Success is more difficult to define, and has more to do with how we feel about what we have accomplished or achieved. To be "successful," we should strive to understand ourselves from the inside out. We need to know the path we have taken is the one we had intended or hoped to find.
This is what attending a school like College of DuPage is all about: we work together to motivate our students, give them the power of self-knowledge, build their persistence and help them learn from trial and error to make educated future decisions.
In the process, we hopefully set our students up for a lifetime of continued achievements and, ultimately, personal and professional success and happiness -- whatever that may mean.
For half a century, we have been a place of opportunity for so many, and we are not alone. A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center states that 49 percent of the 1.8 million baccalaureate earners in the 2015-16 academic year were enrolled in two-year schools at some point during the previous 10 years.
In 20 states, including Illinois, that number reaches more than 50 percent. In addition, the National Center for Educational Statistics reports that 42.7 percent of all undergraduate students enrolled in public institutions across the country are currently enrolled in two-year colleges.
While facts and figures are impressive, oftentimes the true impact of college education cannot be measured. Beneath those matching green robes during commencement at College of DuPage, for example, are countless individuals, each with a unique story.
The open arms of College of DuPage continue to embrace our students long after they leave this place. If we have done our job properly, we serve as a launchpad of sorts and our students never forget the school or the professors or individual experiences that made such a difference in their lives.
Recently, the college hosted a Women in STEM event aimed at high school students, and two of our alumni returned from out of state to participate.
Marsela Jorgolli, who began her higher education experience at COD, has since completed doctorate and post-doctorate work at Harvard University and, in 2014, was selected to attend the GapSummit at the University of Cambridge as one of the next generation of biotechnology leaders.
In addition, alum Julianne Fernandez is pursuing her master of science in geology at the University of Cincinnati, focusing on carbon cycling and methane emissions in Lake Erie. Last summer, she was selected for a two-week National Science Foundation expedition for early career marine scientists and, as part of this project, was trained using Alvin, a deep submergence vehicle owned by the U.S. Navy.
Another alum, Bryan Green, came to COD to play hockey and was part of the 1988 national championship team. He now serves as an attorney and adviser of business law for the Department of the Army and fulfills duties assigned as a Major-Judge Advocate General's Corps in the U.S. Army Reserves.
In addition, former student Ted Raspiller admits that his first year at a four-year school did not go well. He switched to COD, which he said changed the course of his life, and he is now president of Virginia's John Tyler Community College.
Some of our former students return to us to keep the continuum of learning moving forward. The list of current professors who once attended College of DuPage is long and includes such esteemed educators as professors of speech Lauren Morgan and Marco Benassi and professor of animation Tony Venezia.
I am looking forward to Friday, May 19, with great anticipation. Last year, as I watched each of our students climb the steps and cross our stage, I noticed something that made me smile.
Within the "sea of green," I saw the individuality of our students literally through their shoes: oxfords, wingtips, heels, boots, flip-flops and high-tops. I have thought about that simple pleasure since then and it moved me to think of the many different paths our students take once they leave College of DuPage.
Even more than a gateway to success, College of DuPage, in its 50th year remains a gateway to possibility.
As best-selling author, businessman and syndicated columnist Harvey Mackay wrote: "A great accomplishment shouldn't be the end of the road, just the starting point for the next leap forward." What truth there is in that!
• Ann Rondeau is president of the College of DuPage. Her column runs monthly in Neighbor during the school year.