Four years ago, Robyn Sutton-Fernandez was working at Panera restaurants in Hadley and Chicopee. She was 36 years old and had never gone to college. One day, she decided she didn't want to spend the rest of her life asking people what they wanted on their sandwiches.
She decided to go to college but had been away from school so long she worried she might fail. So, in September 2011, she enrolled in HCC's Adult Basic Education Transition to College and Careers program, a series of free, non-credit classes to prepare adult students for college or the workplace. ABE TCC students take courses in math, English, writing, computers and study skills.
"I knew I needed to take baby steps to get back," she said.
Sutton-Fernandez graduated from the program in December 2011 and entered HCC's degree program in 2012.
On May 31, she'll graduate with high honors and an associate degree in liberal arts. Next September, she'll be going to Mount Holyoke College for her bachelor's degree in creative writing.
"I never thought I would get where I am," said Sutton-Fernandez, now 40, who gave the keynote speech at Friday's ABE TCC graduation.
"This is the first step," she told the new graduates. "Keep going."
Seven students received certificates for completing the Spring 2014 ABE TCC day program on Friday: Donna Blanchard, Jeffrey Hodge, Riyadh Majeed, Keyla Rosa, Amber Shea, Barbara Walker and Jackie Wojcicki.
The night before, 12 students received certificates for completing the Spring 2014 ABE TCC evening program, which is held at the Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center in downtown Holyoke: Cammille Douchette, Paula Estrada, Alfredo Hernandez, Victor Martinez, Gillie Richardson, Yuko Richmond, Maida Rivera, Ilene Rodriguez, Maria "Licy" Rodriguez, Ruby Rodriguez, Sarah Theroux, Nancy Vazquez.
"I remember what Robyn was like when she started," Kermit Dunkelberg, assistant vice president of Adult Basic Education and Workforce Development, told the day program graduates on Friday. "She was much more shy and a lot less confident. Robyn is what this program is all about. You heard her list of accomplishments. It all started in this classroom."
Jeffrey Hodge hopes to be as successful at HCC as Sutton-Fernandez. He'll be a full-time student at HCC next fall and plans to major in business administration.
"When you're somewhere and you know you belong there," he told his fellow graduates, "this is how it feels."
Photos: (Left) ABE TCC alum Robyn Sutton-Fernandez talks to new graduates of the program last week. (Right) Spring 2014 ABE TCC day program graduates. (Thumbnail) Jeffrey Hodges accepts his certificate of completion from ABE TCC coordinator Mary Martone.