The College of Southern Maryland (CSM) celebrated 466 candidates for 480 associate degrees and 271 certificates during its 62nd Spring Commencement Ceremony, held May 14. The 2021 graduating class earned several exceptional characteristics, including having spent their last academic year participating in distance learning with limited in-person instruction. And while the 2021 CSM graduates turned their tassels in a virtual ceremony shared during a Facebook live event Friday afternoon, many will also be participating in a socially distant photo opportunity with CSM leadership on an outdoor stage at the La Plata Campus next week.

Of the students being celebrated today, 171 are from Charles County, 157 are from St. Mary’s County, 108 are from Calvert County and 30 are from outside of the region. Nearly 72% of the graduates are women and 28% are men. Twenty-six percent of the students graduated with honors.

The majority of degrees, or 27.9%, are in the field of arts and sciences, nursing (15.2%), business administration (6%), social sciences (5.6%) and criminal justice (5.6%). General study transfers, accounting and business management are the primary certificates awarded. The oldest graduate is 70 years young and the youngest is 17 years old.

The virtual ceremony was marked with pre-recorded speeches, video salutes from professors, 2021 graduate and 21-year-old Waldorf resident Domonique Rinaldi’s mesmerizing rendition of the national anthem, graduate photos and quotes, and a webpage filled with well-wishes from elected officials at the local, regional, state and federal levels. More than 990 Facebook viewers tuned in to leave more than 428 comments and clicked their love, like and hug reactions more than 590 times during the ceremony.

‘Pioneers in Our Post-COVID World’

“Students gathered here at graduation today navigated a global pandemic, along with the rest of the world, that turned our lives upside down,” shared CSM President Dr. Maureen Murphy. “Many of us felt the impact the pandemic has had on mental health and finances. Members of our community experienced food and housing insecurity, perhaps for the first time. Students, amid all this, you dealt with an emotionally charged environment around race relations and politics.”

Murphy praised the students for demonstrating compassion at an unprecedented level.

“While you certainly felt the loss of the campus experience—of seeing friends and professors, of participating in campus life and gathering with other students—you connected and cared for each other,” she said. “You created virtual connections, study groups, and activities. You found ways to support each other and built friendships that will carry you through your lifetime. And you helped your community. Over this academic year, CSM has distributed thousands of pounds of food to students and their families, as well as members of our larger community.

“We’ve entered a new world, and I find hope for all of us inyou,” she added. “You have proven you know how to overcome adversity. You are the role models for those who come after you. You have rewritten the story of success, and as the world begins to emerge from the global pandemic, you are now uniquely prepared to become the pioneers in our new post-COVID world.”

Despite Enormous Loss, Students Persevere

Nineteen-year-old Cornelius Hightower III, of Waldorf, stepped up to serve his graduating classmates as their student speaker – and with distinction – despite a year of significant challenges and great loss. The Mechanical Engineering major, pictured right, is the only male among his seven siblings – most of whom have attended or graduated from CSM – and all of whom lost both their father and grandmother to the COVID-19 virus in the fall.

After thanking many people for his success – including his advisor CSM Pre-Engineer Coordinator Jehnell Linkins who sent daily motivational texts during his period of grieving – Hightower shared his deeply personal story.

“In this last year – during a global pandemic – I, and many of you, faced enormous pain in our lives,” he said. “Last fall, during my third semester at CSM, my life changed in two weeks. And in those instances, my drive for school was lost.”

He explained that he took a break from school to grieve with his family and manage the enormity of their losses.

“My father and grandmother were two of the most important people in my life,” he shared. “But slowly I came to realize the only way you really lose someone, is if you stop loving them. I will never stop loving my father and my grandmother and I will carry them, and the lessons they taught me, with me for the rest of my life.

“The community at CSM is a family and without this family I do not think I would have been able to overcome these recent, toughest obstacles of my life.” he said. “CSM is filled with uniqueness and diversity and that is what makes this place special. There are many different backgrounds and perspectives in life and if you listen to the different voices here, you will learn more valuable information than you’ll find in any book.”

The St. Charles High School alumni also explained that CSM was always his first choice for higher education because he witnessed his sisters’ successes at the college. “I knew first-hand the value of community colleges. I knew first-hand the sense of family at CSM. And I knew CSM was, and is, the smartest choice in town.”

While at CSM, he became one of 14 students who joined to charter the nation’s newest National Society of Black Engineers chapter at CSM. He also joined numerous clubs, volunteered in the community and participated in the college’s annual student advocacy day where he spoke with Maryland’s legislators about the importance of funding community colleges across the state “for families like ours who have [jobs], seven children and big dreams.”

From here, Hightower will attend the University of Maryland A. James Clark School of Engineering to get his bachelor’s degree and receive hands-on experience and networking opportunities at Patuxent River Naval Air Station (NAVAIR) through a unique and exclusive partnership between Clark School of Engineering, NAVAIR and CSM.

“I know that many of you have similar stories as mine – filled with adversity,” he offered his class. “I hope you share your stories, as well. You may not know it, but your story has already served as a light to others who may be in the dark themselves looking for a light to guide themselves out.

“My dad often told me ‘your light was never meant to make you feel comfortable in the dark, it is meant to encourage those who are searching for a way out and for those who love darkness to feel uncomfortable,’” he explained. “I made promises to my father and grandmother as well as other family members that I will keep trying to get better every day whether it’s mentally, physically, or spiritually. I know many of you have made promises to your family and yourselves. Make sure you keep the promises because they may very well be what inspires others to chase their dreams and goals.”

In closing, Hightower told his class to value ‘you the process’ more than ‘you the product.’ “There is no point thinking about the destination if you cannot realize the path to get there. This has been an amazing journey, but somehow I know the best is yet to come.” (view Hightower’s inspirational speech here.)

We Survive and Thrive

CSM Associate Vice President of Strategic Initiatives James Finger earned the distinction of being the oldest graduate in the CSM class of 2021 as well as the distinction of finally becoming a CSM alum. Finger, whose career at CSM spans 17 years, started taking classes one at a time more than 10 years ago.

“I have no doubt that your families and friends share the same sense of pride we are all feeling today,” CSM’s Interim Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Rodney Redmond offered in his remarks to graduates. “You followed through in your pursuit of knowledge and in your pursuit of perfecting an area of expertise. Whether you’re a senior manager or an entry-level employee on the front lines, a working parent or in the trades, you have grown your career and professional goals. And more than that, you have grown personally.”

Redmond has worked in higher education for more than 25 years and joined CSM five months ago.

“I can tell you without a doubt that my biggest takeaway – what I learned the most while here – is that this CSM family (faculty, staff and students, together) have unbreakable strength and commitment to each other,” Redmond said. “Today, I say to each of you, you have experienced many storms in your life pursuing your certificate or degree. You are living proof that not even a pandemic – and the incredible hardships and losses caused by it – stopped you from grabbing your own personal steering wheel, sometimes clutching it with bare knuckles and through tears in order to keep going, to keep trying, to keep learning and reaching for your goals.

“We all know they’ll be more storms,” he continued. “And now we know not only will we survive them, we can thrive from them.”

Continue Your Journey with Patience

CSM Senate Faculty President Dr. Sarah Merranko was proud to share with the graduates that she was attending her 36thcommencement at CSM.

“Thirty-six times [twice a year], I have watched graduates march down the aisle as graduation candidates and walk back out as graduates,” she shared. “It never gets old. It never ceases to bring tears to my eyes. And it never fails to remind me of what it all means.”

“College means for so many students late nights and early mornings, working ahead but feeling behind, and many other moments that vacillate between hope and despair,” she continued. “But it also means that today is a day for not only a celebration but for reflection; reflection for how far you have come to reach this goal and the person you have become during that time.”

Quoting her favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, Merranko reminded the graduates to be patient on their journey. “Ask the questions and pay attention to the human you are becoming,” she offered. “Be patient if you don’t have all the answers right now because learning about ourselves is a process, not a final destination.”

[view Drs. Redmond’s and Merranko’s full speeches here.]

Ageless Quest for Knowledge

CSM Associate Vice President of Strategic Initiatives James Finger earned the distinction of being the oldest graduate in the CSM class of 2021 as well as the distinction of finally becoming a CSM alum. Finger, whose career at CSM spans 17 years, started taking classes one at a time more than 10 years ago.

“I took classes based on topics and professors I liked, not on getting a degree,” he said. “I never intended to graduate until the college started the reverse transcript program which allowed me to used credits from previous degrees for credits toward an associate degree.”

Finger, 70, holds a bachelor’s degree and a master of business administration degree. The Accokeek resident, pictured right, earned his Associate of Arts degree in Arts and Science from CSM, but offered that his latest degree – and grades – didn’t matter as much as did the experience of learning.

“I did end up with a 4.0 GPA. which I never attained in my previous academic life,” he shared, adding that more importantly, “You are never too old to learn something new and you never know how transformative that the journey can be to one’s spirit.”

Youngest Earn AAs, High School Diplomas Concurrently

Eighteen-year-old Huntingtown resident Josephine Orie

Eighteen-year-old Huntingtown resident Josephine Orie and Elizabeth Campbell, 17, of Bryantown, were among the youngest in the class of 2021 to graduate. Both homeschoolers, the women earned high school credits at CSM in conjunction with their college credits and both have earned their diplomas and degrees, concurrently.

“I definitely felt like it was harder to learn remotely,” said Orie, pictured right. “I had more trouble focusing on classes when I was at home rather than actually being on campus, and my grades took a bit of a hit this past year. I will be happy to start in-person classes again soon.”

Grateful for the affordability of community college, she said she was glad for CSM’s “wide selection of classes” and how her credits will transfer into the next steps of her education at Virginia Tech … “which is nice,” she said. “I lightened my school workload for next year.”

Campbell will be attending Regent University in Virginia Beach this fall where she will be working toward a fine arts degree with a double major in Theater and Acting.

Elizabeth Campbell, 17, of Bryantown

“I have been involved in the performing arts since I was seven years old, so it was very weird to suddenly have all that stripped away last March,” Campbell shared. “However, I am thankful for the opportunities I did have because of the pandemic. It was a blessing in disguise to be able to learn to perform on Zoom while still in college as that is a skill that will most likely be used in the arts for years to come. Aside from school, the pandemic made certain friendships stronger than they probably would have been and it strengthened my faith.”

Campbell is also a dancer and was part of a powerful performance filmed on CSM’s campus recently and airing virtually as part of the CSM Spring 2021 Dance Ensemble. Highlighting the stress of the pandemic, and eagerness to return to campus, the dancers’ talented expressions of healing and excitement is entitled “Our Way Back Home.

To see the full list of graduates, visit https://www.csmd.edu/news/2021/csm-announces-2021-spring-commencement-candidates-for-graduation.html.

To read more stories about CSM’s recent graduates, and to read letters of congratulations from state and local politicians, as well as CSM leadership, visit https://www.csmd.edu/csmgrad2021/.


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