Gateway to College is one of the programs at HCC that makes President Bill Messner most proud, he said last week, but it's also one of the programs he has the most difficulty explaining.
The program, now four years old, takes students at risk of dropping out of high school and helps them earn their high school diplomas by enrolling them in college courses.
"People look at me and say, ‘What? They're going to get through high school by taking college classes?" Messner said at Gateway to College graduation ceremonies Aug. 16. "I say, ‘Yea. They do it, and they do it darn well.'"
Messner acknowledged that high school "as we know it" isn't structured for everyone. "What some students need is something different," he said. "And Gateway is something different."
Gateway graduated 12 students this summer and a total of 45 total during the 2011-2012 academic year. In addition to earning their high school diplomas, many of them also earned transferable college credits. Three of the 12 earned more than 30 college credits. Three finished coursework for their CNA licenses. Four are young parents. Eight are enrolled in college for the fall semester.
What they have in common is that they struggled in high school and were likely to drop out. Over half arrived at Gateway with fewer than 20 percent of the credits they needed to graduate from high school.
"Because they've been so successful here," Messner said, "I'm convinced they're going to be successful in the next step of their lives."
So far, in four years, Gateway has graduated 92 students from high schools in Hampden County. In this latest group, seven are from Springfield (Chanel Allen, Ruth Arroyo, Iesha Kuilan, Bellamy Martinez, Nathan Rodriguez, Ramona Wilson, Tatiana Yournet), three from Holyoke (Jonathan Cavette, Alyssa Lavely, Marcus Amand), one from Agawam (Jessica Wessig) and one from Chicopee (Tyler Kapper).
"I'm thankful every day for you guys,"said student speaker Nate Rodriguez, "I appreciate everything you have done for me."
Miriam Quinones, coordinator of Multicultural Academic Services for HCC, gave the keynote speech to graduates and their families in the Leslie Phillips Theater. She said the graduation brought up her own memories of carrying her two-year-old daughter to the podium to receive her GED certificate, about growing up poor, being a teenage mom and dropping out of high school at 17 and moving to the United States at age 18 with an 8-month old baby.
She said she started at HCC in the English as Second Language program, earned her associate degree and then went on to graduate from the University of Massachusetts with honors. She told graduates that by earning their high school diplomas they had showed the necessary determination and quoted President Barack Obama, who said, "Don't let your failures define you; let them teach you."
She ended her talk by handing out carnations to each of the graduates and a card with a quote from Booker T. Washington: "Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles he has overcome while trying to succeed."
Turning to her classmates, student speaker Jessica Wessig talked about the close bond that develops between Gateway students. "You guys have literally been a family to me, and it makes me so sad to leave," she said. "We did it. Good job."
Photos: (Left) Gateway graduate Alyssa Lavely, of Holyoke, with her daughter. (Right) Student Speaker Jessica Wessig, of Agawam, enjoys her moment. (Thumbnail) Gateway graduate Ramona Wilson, of Sprignfield, takes the stage for her certificate.