After Graduation: Great opportunities, great responsibilities

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LENOX — As much as it was a ceremony, a marker of a milestone in a lifetime of potential success, Berkshire Community College's commencement also offered graduates an earnest forecast of their future, and the expectations set before them.

The ceremony was held within the picturesque setting of Tanglewood on June 2, where hopes, aspirations and well wishes seemed to make the air vibrate. But eventually, the moment would temper as the graduates would return to their work, family and social lives.

BCC President Ellen Kennedy in her remarks told the students, "You will each face unpredictable adventures and challenges in the days and years ahead as you strive to re-imagine your own future. Know that you are being given a gift, an opportunity, to decide what your future will hold and then make that re-imagining your reality."

Shortly after that, Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos E. Santiago reminded the students of the social and economic value of the credentials they have respectively gained.

"Covet it, frame it, never lose sight what it means," he said. "Your degree offers you protection from the ravages of poverty and tragedies of recession."

He then offered some sobering statistics: Only 25 percent of Pittsfield graduates have a bachelor's degree or higher, which is below the statewide average of 41 percent of residents holding such credentials.

According to the U.S. Census data for Berkshire County, based on averages between 2011 and 2015, while about 90 percent of residents ages 25 and older have a high school diploma, only about 32 percent of residents obtained a bachelor's degree or higher credential. Using that same time frame, about 60 percent of residents ages 16 and older had employment.

Santiago indicated that across the commonwealth, the municipalities with the highest unemployment rates tend to have the lowest numbers of residents with higher education degrees.

He challenged the students and audience member to persevere and deny the implications of that trend: a declining state economy where employers continue to fail to find qualified and eager workers.

"By earning your degree, you're helping to build the common wealth and the common good of this state," said Santiago.

To give these numbers context, he offered this for students to ponder: "In Massachusetts, 10 years from now, we're anticipating the so-called "silver tsunami,"" he said, implicating a "tidal wave" of college-educated workers across the state leaving their jobs for retirement — an estimated total of 660,000 people.

Santiago posited, "Will companies stay in Massachusetts if they can't find persevering people to replace those of us who will leave?"

He continued, saying, "We need to get more students to commencement day. You represent the front lines of the change we need to make."

After students officially turned their tassels over on their graduation caps to indicate the bridge to a higher degree, BCC Alumni Board President Melissa Myers welcomed the men and women into the club.

"No matter what your circumstances I have no doubt that you have had help to get to this goal. That help may have come from friends, family, professors, administrative staff, scholarship committees, tutors, and countless others. BCC and your support system were there when you were ready," she said.

The alumni association has become more active in supporting graduates in recent years, including offering career development services, social groups and a financial support program called SALT, which helps plan and pay for college and figure out how to successfully repay college loans.

Financial aid clerk and SALT representative, Rachel Deschamps, was also on hand at commencement to offer students literature, a loan repayment checklist, information on how to fund and ensure a credits transfer to other institutions, among other fun items like logo mugs and tote bags.

She said anyone, even if they're not college alumni, can access this program for free to ask questions and get resources.

Another support being offered for students who have not finished an associate's degree before transferring from a community college to a state four-year institution may be eligible for what's known as a "reverse transfer," where they may apply credit earned at a four-year institution back to their community college to complete the associate degree requirements without paying extra.

Deschamps, Kennedy and Santiago also all emphasized, in their own words, the importance of students keeping on track and doing their best to prepare for the future.

"A big thing to know, which people overlook, is the college to career costs," said Deschamps, noting that not all careers will provide the immediate earnings in balance with the amount of debt grads owe from borrowing.

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