The College of Southern Maryland (CSM) celebrated 432 candidates for 438 degrees and 136 certificates during its 63rd Spring Commencement on May 13 at the college’s La Plata Campus. The event marked the return of in-person festivities for the time-honored tradition since the beginning of the global pandemic in 2020.
Of the students celebrated, 160 are from Charles County, 147 are from St. Mary’s County, 102 are from Calvert County, and 23 are from outside the region. Sixty-three percent of the graduates are women, and 37% are men. Twenty-six percent of the students graduated with honors.
The majority of degrees, or 23.7%, are in the field of arts and sciences, nursing (16.2%), business administration (8%), cybersecurity (4.8%), and engineering (4.1%). The top certificates obtained were in general studies transfer, advanced and basic accounting, business management, and cybersecurity. The oldest graduate is 67 years young, and the youngest is 17.
After a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem, sung by Waldorf resident and CSM student Caroline Carter, 20, the ceremony was filled with emotional speeches, numerous recognitions, and memorable words of encouragement.
CSM President Dr. Maureen Murphy provided the keynote address. Appointed the fifth president of the College of Southern Maryland on July 1, 2017, she recently announced her intent to enter retirement on Dec. 31, 2022.
CSM Board of Trustee Jay Webster introduced Murphy – showering the president with accolades and admiration.
“I assure you, the board of trustees was very reluctant to accept her plan to retire,” he shared, calling Murphy a passionate leader for equity and social justice. “We consider the selection of Dr. Murphy as the college’s fifth president as one of our greatest accomplishments.”
Be Still in This Moment
Murphy began her comments by asking the audience to slow down, and be present.
“I have a friend who always commented on how I was so much ‘in the world,’ she explained. “I’d always assumed that meant I operated in reality, while she, diagnosed with schizophrenia, perhaps did not.
“The world was a place of continual movement, of “getting and spending,” and sometimes we simply need to be still,” she continued. “So, let’s be still now in this unique moment. This is the only time in the universe’s history that this group of people will be assembled in this place for this purpose. The only time. Let’s be silent for a moment and know it.”
After a moment of quiet, Murphy acknowledged the tremendous and often life-changing disruptions caused by the pandemic in the last two years.
“Throughout those months, all of us at the College of Southern Maryland did all we could to keep our education going, but it’s YOU who rose to this challenge and learned to learn during continued change and uncertainty. I am immensely proud of you, and because of you, I am optimistic about our future,” she said.
“Some of you know, this is my last commencement, my last lecture,” she added. “The bulk of my career happened in the ‘Before Times.’ That experience and that skill set will not create the future. The future will be crafted by people who don’t cling to ‘the way we’ve always done things.’ If we are really honest with ourselves, that’s a good thing.”
Murphy then charged the graduates with rebuilding the world with compassion.
“Most of my life is in the rear-view mirror, yet when I look through the windshield at the horizon, I am incredibly hopeful—because of you,” she said. “Making sense of this pandemic will take us decades. Our world must be constructed anew, and you will do it.”
As she closed her remarks, she was met with an extended standing ovation.
Immigrant Student Shares Life-Changing Journey
Michael Chiong of Waldorf asked to serve his classmates as their student commencement speaker in order to deliver his personal gratitude and story of hope. The 26-year-old, pictured right, graduated with a degree in General Engineering and with High Honors.
Chiong shared with his classmates that he immigrated from the Philippines in 2020, and like many immigrants, “all I brought with me was a dream: A dream to be successful and to bring prestige to my family.”
But he had a rough start. “Once I finally got to the United States, I wasn’t aware of the culture and had difficulty with the language. I was very intimidated … and then of course, there was also that pandemic ….”
He applied to CSM to begin his path to a better life and was struck by how the college community embraced him. Little did he understand, though, just what it meant to be a member of the CSM family, he shared, until last year when a gunshot wounded him in a random act of violence.
“This college, and all of you, rallied to help me,” he shared, speaking openly about his ensuing struggles with anxiety and depression. “My professors were understanding. My fellow classmates were supportive. And I was put in touch with CSM Student Counselor Kellie Jamison, where I was able to receive free emotional counseling. I am neither ashamed nor embarrassed to share with you that I received counseling because I now firmly believe that we must end the stigma that surrounds depression.”
He urged the attendees to ask for help when they were suffering.
“As we go from here to the next leg of our journeys, I urge you to speak up when you are suffering or having a hard time,” he said. “There are ways to mend, heal, tackle your fears, and cope day-to-day. The universe will help you. All you have to do, is ask.”
He also encouraged everyone to remember to be grateful.
“My Grandma Perla and my Aunt Margie taught me that,” he said. “We didn’t make it to this commencement ceremony by ourselves. We got here with the help of many other people: Our parents, our friends, our CSM family, and each other. Sure, we worked really hard. But the fact is we are here today because many people helped us, and we must always be thankful for our community of caregivers.
Chiong thanked everyone “for not just teaching me engineering, but for opening my eyes and giving me the tools to live my life.”
Those tools, according to Chiong?
“Work hard. Ask for help. Be patient and be grateful,” he offered. “Surviving and thriving is really that simple.”
You all Make Lasting Impacts on Us
“Every time I hear the first notes of Pomp and Circumstance play and watch the audience turn to watch as their graduate is marching in, I think about all the stories that fill this space,” shared Senate Faculty President and Communication Professor Sarah Merranko. “I think about the journeys that led you to this exact place where you are about to be recognized for your academic achievements. I think about the students I have met and the stories they have shared with me, but also those I have yet to meet; sometime in the future, when in casual conversation in the line at the grocery store, they notice my CSM sweatshirt, and they say, “I graduated from CSM!”
Merranko, who is marking her 20th year serving CSM students, shared that she stands in awe at every commencement as she looks across at the hundreds of graduates’ faces knowing full well how hard they worked to earn their degrees.
“I love the diversity of our student body,” she said. “I love the rich experiences you bring to the classroom and to our campus. I love that our students are a part of our local community before they are our students and some long after they have walked out our doors. Truth be told, I may not always love it when I throw on a baseball cap and run out the door on a Saturday morning to see one of my former students seeing me less than professorial. But after that moment of ego passes, it always makes me smile to know that I am remembered and to have you share your stories with me. And I remember you too. In fact, we all do. So please remember that while you may never walk into another classroom, here again, you will always have a home at CSM.”
Oldest Graduate Jim McDonald: ‘Write It in Pencil, Because Life Changes’
At 67, Jim McDonald shared that he has seen many changes in his lifetime. “Isn’t it just something that I carry a computer … in my pocket?” he laughed, referring to his cell phone. “I do know this much; write in pencil because life changes.”
McDonald received his associate degree in English during the 63rd Spring Commencement exercise – his second AA degree from CSM, having earned his first in General Studies last spring. These two accomplishments have been three decades in the making for the La Plata resident whose careers have taken him from a carpenter to a storyteller, published poet, and author of five books.
“I made a lot of mistakes along the way,” McDonald shared. “I am a recovering alcoholic and addict. I hope that someone might read my story and understand that they can get through their addiction and depression and make their dreams come true. Maybe there is someone else out there like me who will realize they can do this, too.
“My advice to everyone is that life can be challenging with many pitfalls,” he added. “Persevere – grab someone you trust and walk straight through those troubling times.”
McDonald credits his former CSM Academic Advisor Bill Rollins with much of his academic success in recent years.
“That man helped me realize that my old brain could handle one class at a time, and that slow and steady really does win the race,” McDonald said. “He also is the one who helped me understand last year, right before I was to graduate with my degree from CSM in general studies, I was also only three courses away from getting my AA in English. He prompted me to enroll in the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) to pursue my bachelor’s in English and to take those three English classes at UMGC first – and then reverse transfer them back to CSM – so I could get my second AA here.”
Rollins, a beloved co-worker to his CSM family and advisor to his students, died unexpectedly on April 6, 2021.
“When I walk across the stage to get my second CSM degree, I am finishing Bill’s plan for me,” McDonald said. “I am so proud to be a College of Southern Maryland graduate.”
Youngest Participant Kept Her Eye on the Prize
The youngest graduate to cross the stage, Abigail Sellner, 18, said she was hooked on college classes from the start: She took her first CSM class, Introduction to Sociology when she was just 15 years old and never looked back.
Sellner tested into CSM’s Talented and Gifted program when she was a 10th-grade student at Northern High School and concurrently took classes at CSM. The social sciences major and Huntingtown resident stayed focused on her goals, using her free time and summer breaks to take classes online. She is receiving her college degree before she receives her high school diploma, which she will do on June 2.
“I have been so overwhelmed because of this accomplishment,” she said. “I have worked really hard for this moment.”
Working hard is what Sellner does. While at Northern, she was a cheerleader all four years – and served as the squad’s captain during her senior year. While at CSM, she was elected to Student Government Association at the Prince Frederick Campus and was among the first students to graduate from CSM’s Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. Leadership Academy – earning a scholarship for her scholarly leadership work.
She credits CSM Professor Lisa Lynk Smith, Student Life Coordinator and SGA sponsor Erika Fisher, and her SGA student cohort for helping her grow. She also said that her parents, sister, and boyfriend were instrumental in helping her succeed.
“I am blessed to be surrounded by a strong support system,” Sellner said. “I have grown in ways I could never have imagined because of my experiences at CSM. I think everyone should start their college journey at a community college. They welcome you right away and sincerely want you to succeed. I don’t think I would have been as successful if I had gone straight to a four-year university from high school. I am beyond thankful for CSM. I feel prepared for anything now.”
Sellner will attend West Virginia University, entering as a junior, to finish her bachelor’s degree this fall.
Trustee Distinguished Service Award
The CSM Trustee’ Distinguished Service Award was bestowed on CSM Board of Trustee Past Chair Theodore L. Harwood II, by CSM Board of Trustee Chair Jay Webster. Harwood served with distinction on the CSM Board of Trustees from 2010 to 2020, serving three terms as chair from 2017 to 2020.
He served on all subcommittees for the board, including the audit committee chair, and as trustee liaison to the CSM Foundation Board of Directors from 2010 to 2016. During his trusteeship, he authored the Achieving the Dream letter of support, worked diligently to minimize cybersecurity risk, promoted board governance excellence, and reinstated faculty tenure.
Harwood continues his commitment to serving CSM students, ensuring affordability and access remain a priority by serving on the CSM Foundation as a board member.
“His service and continuous volunteer efforts result in the collective heartfelt gratitude of everyone at CSM and the Board of Trustees,” said Webster.
Webster also took a moment to honor Samuel Jones, a trustee of the CSM Board of Trustees since 2014, who continuously served and provided leadership until his passing on Tuesday, April 12.
“Sam was an exceptional trustee, professional, and friend,” said Webster. “As a trustee, he served on all committees and chaired several, multiple times; he asked thoughtful questions, was considerate in his deliberations, and cared deeply for the college’s students, staff, and faculty.”
Peers Honor Bilsker with Faculty Excellence Award
College of Southern Maryland, Professor of Philosophy Dr. Richard Bilsker was recognized during the college’s 63rd Spring Commencement for receiving the CSM Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award. The award is bestowed upon a full-time professor by members of the CSM faculty.
“The faculty excellence in teaching award is a celebration by one’s peers,” shared Merranko while announcing the awards during the commencement festivities. “It provides a platform for acknowledging a commitment to exemplary teaching, student engagement, contributions to the college and one’s department, professional development, and community commitment. Faculty are nominated annually and anonymously evaluated against a rigorous rubric, celebrating achievements in teaching.”
Read the full story on Bilsker, and his contributions to students’ success at “Peers Recognize CSM Professor Dr. Richard Bilsker With Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award.”
Jehnell Linkins Receives Inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award
CSM’s 1983 alumna, pre-engineering program coordinator and adjunct faculty member Jehnell Linkins was honored for her tireless work on behalf of students and the community with the college’s inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award. The award is a new way for the college to honor alumni who have distinguished themselves through professional achievements, service to the community, or service to CSM.
“Jehnell truly has been a terrific advocate for CSM and for our students, and that’s what community college is all about,” said Michael Bellis, CSM’s assistant director of alumni and annual giving. “She has given her amazing talents back to the college and is a passionate advocate for our learners. She has been so instrumental in so many lives that it can be a challenge for her to walk from her car to her office without being stopped by a grateful student,” said Bellis.
Please read “When You Give, You Get it Back Tenfold” for the full story on Linkins’ contributions to student success.