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'We are exceptional'

DATE: Monday, June 3, 2019

"I have HCC to thank for giving me the audacity to dream big and the academic foundation that I will build upon at Williams."

Graduating HCC student Armanis Fuentes gives a speech at Commencement 2019

Commencement speaker Armanis Fuentes graduated June 1 with high honors and his associate degree in liberal arts. Fuentes was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Holyoke. He will attend Williams College in September and plans to study history with a focus on Latinx Studies. Below is the full text of his remarks:

Good morning,

I just wanna start by thanking everybody for coming and sharing in this moment with us.  

Graduating from Holyoke Community College is an accomplishment worth celebrating.  

Growing up, I didn't know many people who went to college. No one in my family did. The only thing I knew was that I liked school and that teachers told me I was a good student – I had "potential," they would say.  

My exposure to college came from watching TV. As a kid, I saw the whole gang from "Saved By The Bell" and Will and Carlton from "Fresh Prince" go off to college and I was waiting for that to happen to me too. The more I learned about the promise of a college education – from TV, from teachers, from mentors – the more I wanted that for myself.  

But, college doesn't just happen to everybody. I had to learn that as I got older.  

In many ways, it's still easy to feel like the promise of a college education doesn't include people that look like me or come from where I come from. Take the college admissions scandal recently in the news as an example. Low-income students, students of color, first-generation students, non-traditional students – we can't take the easy way out. We have to fight to walk across stages. I know I have.   

Growing up in Holyoke Public Schools, I've had to survive the school-to-prison pipeline, which strips students of color from their potential by criminalizing them. In the middle of my senior year at Holyoke High School, a school resource officer wrongfully, and with no warning, arrested me and charged me with a felony. I went from being a rising star student since I was kid to almost becoming a convicted felon at 17. That was dark time for me, and truthfully, I thought my college career was over before it began.  

But thankfully, it wasn't. And I came to HCC to make sure that it wasn't over.  

The struggles don't stop once you get into college. Being first-generation is isolating, it can feel like no one in your family understands what it is that you're even doing. But it's also empowering. It feels good to know that I'm making my family proud and paving the way for my younger brothers.  

All those obstacles, the sacrifices and the commitment was a small price to pay for my "aha! moment," which was the moment I realized I hadn't lost any of the potential I had when I was kid. It was always there. I just had to believe in myself, reclaim it, and dream big.

I came to that realization in the spring of 2018, as I sat in a classroom on the second floor of Chapin Hall at Amherst College. This course brings together students from HCC and Amherst into the same classroom to learn about the political history of Holyoke. Half of me was intimidated by the idea of learning with students from such an elite college; the other half was eager to prove to myself I could do it.  

I realized that the Amherst students were no different than us. We were all in class together, doing the same work, and I found myself thriving in the rigorous academic environment. That experience proved to me that what stood between students at Amherst and us at HCC is opportunity, not capability. I saw that I, and all of us, cannot only take up space at elite colleges, we can succeed wherever we go.  

That course was a turning point for me. I will be continuing on to my bachelor's this fall with a full scholarship to Williams College – a place I'd never dreamed to be at and I have HCC to thank for giving me the audacity to dream big and the academic foundation that I will build upon at Williams.  

We have something that no large endowment can ever teach: resilience. Our resilience has been tested time and time again. We should rethink the way we look at our struggles, because every obstacle I surmounted has taught me more than any of my greatest successes.  

I want to leave you with this: All of us here today are not exceptional students despite our struggles and hardships, we are exceptional because of them.

PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: Graduating HCC student Armanis Fuentes gives a speech at Commencement 2019