"The path of one's life is at times walked with inconsistent steps leading to unwanted places."
That was the opening line of Gerson Alfaro's student address at HCC's Gateway to College graduation ceremony Tuesday, January 17th. Alfaro, who is from Springfield, was talking about himself but what he said could just have easily applied to the other 11 young men and women who received certificates from the Gateway program.
The Gateway to College program started 11 years ago in Portland, Oregon, to give second chances to students at risk of dropping out of high school. The program has been replicated at 30 sites around the country, including Holyoke Community College.
Alfaro's inconsistent steps kept him a high school freshman for three years in Springfield, where he failed the same English class four times. A guidance counselor recommended HCC's Gateway program. "I signed up and never looked back," Alfaro said. Teachers at HCC quickly realized his talent as a writer and immediately moved him up to a higher-level English class. "The shadow I once was disappeared."
This year, HCC's Gateway program graduated 12 students from four school districts (Springfield, Holyoke, Longmeadow and Agawam). Combined, those students will transfer more than 100 credits to HCC that can be applied toward their associate degrees, and nine of those students will be continuing their education at HCC this spring.
From Springfield: Mohamad Aldabesheh, Gerson Alfaro, Clarissa Banchs, Stephanie Colon, Jareliz Cordova, Jazzmary Diana, Amanda Hale, Jessele Quinonez-Diaz and Raymond Wilson. From Holyoke: Shawn O'Donnell. From Longmeadow: Benjamin Siegel. From Agawam: Ashley Tebaldi. They received graduation certificates from Gateway but will get official diplomas from their own school districts.
"We know it has not been easy," said Vivian Ostrowski, director of the Gateway to College program. "Some of you took three buses to get here and three buses to get home. But you did it and you did everything we asked you to do and everything your districts asked you to do, and now you are graduating from high school."
"Our expectation is that you are going to do some wonderful, terrific, electrifying things for our community," said Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services for HCC. "The greater Springfield area will be proud that you graduated, because you're going to make a difference. The future holds limitless potential for each and every one of you."
Guest speaker Frank Borelli, adjunct professor, of Communication, Media and Theater Arts said the graduation ceremony was proof that it is never too late to make a change.
"These young people have been given a second chance," he said. "It's been a real joy to have them. In the midst of exploring transformation, through theater and art, and becoming someone else for a while, they've become stronger, more resilient members of the world community. They have transformed."
The ceremony was particularly important to administrators from Springfield Public Schools, which had nine students who graduated. Springfield had targeted its Gateway program for budget cuts during the last fiscal year, but students in the program protested and convinced administrators to extend it for one more year.
"This year was so successful in terms of passing MCAS and in terms of graduation," said Alex Gillat, from Springfield Public Schools, who attended the ceremony. "We are now in the stages of making sure Springfield will continue the program for next year. I hope it will continue because it's an outstanding program."
Photos: (Left) Gateway to College graduates toss their caps in a traditional ritual. (Right) Jareliz Cordova, from Springfield, holds up her Gateway to College graduation certificate.