Harper College 2024 commencement ceremony celebrates ‘rich tapestry’ of graduates

Harper College celebrated the Class of 2024 at its 56th annual Commencement Ceremony on May 17.

More than 750 students gathered on the floor of the NOW Arena in Hoffman Estates to commemorate the degrees and certificates they earned during the 2023-24 academic year.

Paralympic Games champion and Harper alumnus Isaac Jean-Paul served as Commencement speaker, sharing stories from his time as an All-American student-athlete at the college. The visually impaired track and field athlete — now a coach and motivational speaker who raises awareness about the experiences of individuals with disabilities — discussed the lessons he learned from Coach Renee Zellner on his way from Harper to setting a Paralympic world record in the men’s high jump.

“Life is about believing, not just as a sentiment, but as the foundation of all possibilities,” Jean-Paul said. “It propels us into realms we never thought possible. Belief is a force that reshapes reality and helps us transcend any obstacles.”

Dr. Avis Proctor, Harper’s president, drew parallels between Jean-Paul and the 2024 graduating class in her remarks to the crowd. She highlighted Albert Szewczyk, who was named Harper’s 2023 Male Student Athlete of the Year for his role as an All-American runner on the college’s national champion cross country team as well as his commitment to his studies. Albert participated in the Engineering Pathways Program, graduating with an engineering science degree and earning admission to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study computer science. Dr. Proctor mentioned how Harper’s Access and Disability Services staff ensured that Albert, who has educational autism, received the support he needed to thrive.

Karissa Olsen is another graduate who has flourished at Harper. After a decade away, she returned to the college in 2022, to pursue her interest in nursing. With the assistance of the college’s Lyft Pass Program and the Fishing Well Scholarship, Karissa was able to overcome obstacles and quickly began to believe in her academic talents, earning straight A’s in her Practical Nursing courses. Dr. Proctor shared that this will not be Karissa’s last graduation; she plans to continue her education through the college’s LPN to RN bridge program.

Dechen Atsatsang also discovered new aspects of her passions and skills while at Harper. Dr. Proctor focused on some of the second-generation Tibetan American’s accomplishments as a student, from founding Harper’s Amnesty International chapter to being invited to the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Youth Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. Graduating with a degree in political science with Global Scholar and Honors Distinctions, Dechen was recently awarded the Critical Language Studies Spark Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State and will study Chinese this summer in an immersive language and culture program.

“Albert, Karissa and Dechen are part of our vibrant, diverse and resilient community,” Dr. Proctor said. “At Harper, it is a gift to be surrounded by people of different cultures and perspectives.”

In total, Harper awarded more than 3,700 degrees and certificates to students in the 2023-24 academic year. Among the graduating class were 229 Ignite Scholars, 181 Promise Scholars and 68 apprentices. Ranging in age from 16 to 74, graduates came from 14 countries, seven states and 23 area communities. Dr. Proctor also took a moment to highlight that 1,126 members of Harper’s graduating class are first-generation college students.

“Each of you has played a unique part in weaving the rich tapestry that is our college community,” she said to all of Harper’s graduates. “Through your different lived experiences, interests and aspirations, you broaden the perspectives of those around you. You challenge ideas. You are the why behind our drive to be a catalyst for change and generational impact.”

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