WCC graduate Tanisha Harper of Detroit waves to family in the crowd prior to the commencement ceremony on May 18. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

 

When Abbee Elwell stepped to the podium as the student speaker at the Washtenaw Community College commencement ceremony on May 18, she talked about how the diversity of the student population was one of the most valuable aspects of her education.

A few rows deep into the sea of black caps and gowns on the floor of the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center, 73-year-old Robert Mathews nodded in agreement.

Not only do WCC students come from the same wide range of races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds found at many institutions of higher learning, but Elwell and Mathews represent something unique to community colleges — a disparate approach to educational goals.

 

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Elwell is an 18-year-old, laser-focused student who has been taking classes at WCC since she was a 14-year-old freshman at Washtenaw Technical Middle College. She is a high honors graduate, earning an associate degree in General Studies in Math and Natural Sciences with a 3.94 GPA. She’ll study economics at the University of Michigan or Hillsdale College in the fall.

Mathews is a lifelong learner who has been taking classes at WCC since the 1970s, when he studied music with instructor Dr. Morris J. Lawrence. He’s still taking music classes nearly 50 years later, but now they’re held in the Morris Lawrence Building on campus.

A Vietnam-era veteran who has been self-employed doing roofing and odd jobs since the 1980s, Mathews also took enough industrial courses to earn a certificate in Power Equipment Technology in May 2006.

“I just wanted to learn what I wanted to learn, and then one day I woke up and I had a certificate,” Mathews said. “At some point over the last few years, an advisor showed me that I only needed a few general education classes to earn my associate degree, so I figured I might as well wrap that up, too.”

Upon completion of an Occupational Studies degree, the Ypsilanti resident earned the distinction of being the oldest graduate in WCC’s Class of 2019.

Elwell and Mathews couldn’t be much more different, but the fact that they coexist on the same campus perfectly summarizes Elwell’s address.

She described the students surrounding her in her first WCC class as a female immigrant, a Detroit native passionate about social justice, a traditional Catholic going into the police academy and a veteran in a wheelchair working toward law school.

Some WCC graduates are looking to enter the workforce with their new skills, others are headed to a four-year college to continue their education. Some are looking to change careers, others seeking certification to help them move up in their current field. Some, like Mathews, are just here because they like to learn new things.

“In times when we see the threshold for offensive speech continually being lowered, yet the need for sensitivity and grace at an all-time high, WCC is one of the best places to be learning right now,” she said. “Our class is one of the greatest displays of how people from different backgrounds can come together and really learn from each other.”