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Students return for a year of learning

Sept. 4, 2015

firstdayStudents arrive for the first day of classes at the Knight Campus in Warwick on Monday.

Classes for the 2015-16 academic year at the Community College of Rhode Island kicked off on Monday, Aug. 31, as administrators, faculty and staff welcomed nearly 16,500 students to the four main campuses. And so the next 50 years in CCRI’s history begin.

At the Knight Campus in Warwick students walked into a spruced up campus – over the summer, a pavilion was constructed behind the round building to offer shade and a place to study, eat lunch or relax; new paint could be seen on the inside halls; a new student union was created; and other improvements to accessibility and pedestrian safety were installed courtesy of the Warwick Renewal project.

The energy of the fall semester was palpable in the Great Hall, where students were socializing, breaking for meals and cracking open the books. It was like they’d never missed a beat. At one table, students Max Cabrera and Gabbie Bloomingburgh, both of Warwick, sat together drinking iced coffee and surfing the Web. The pair has been friends since seventh grade; both were graduates of Pilgrim High School.

studentsCCRI students Gabbie Bloomingburgh and Max Cabrera.

“I’m hoping to pass my classes,” said Cabrera with an eye toward the future – a computer science major, he wants to transfer on to Rhode Island College or University of Rhode Island. Bloomingburgh, a music education major, nodded in agreement, her own goals in mind.

Across the room, another pair of high school friends sat comparing schedules. Michelle Lopez and Zachary Levinson, both graduates of Warwick Vets, said the transition had been smooth in some respects – classroom expectations like behavior and attendance were similar – and surprising in others. “The amount of homework we had after just one day of college is equal to the amount we had the whole year in high school,” said Levinson, who hopes to conquer his general education requirements before September by studying psychology and eventually becoming a motivational speaker. “But it’s college. You have to put the work in to get somewhere in life,” he added.

Lopez, whose course load includes college writing, college success, elementary algebra and drawing, said that she’s most looking forward to earning a diploma. “And the faster I can get it, the better,” she added before turning back to her schedule.

While Levinson and Lopez were just beginning their college careers, Tina Gelinas of Warwick was getting ready to add another chapter to hers. Gelinas graduated in September with an associate degree in General Studies and is now taking prerequisites in the hopes of being accepted to the Physical Therapy program.

A pharmacy technician for 15 years, Gelinas decided to come to CCRI when her husband was diagnosed with cancer, and she had to stop working to take care of him. But something was missing, she said, and with a lot of support, her mother and husband gently pushed her back into the educational fold. Gelinas, now 41, said that she had initially been intimidated by the idea of returning to school after more than 20 years, but that the students and faculty at CCRI quickly made her feel at ease.

“I was nervous as anything then,” she recalled. “But now I’m really excited to come back. In my family, I’m the only one who graduated high school, I’m the only one who graduated college and everybody is so proud of me. It’s a good feeling inside.”

Going north and into the city, the Liston Campus in Providence was bustling with activity. While first-time student Guillermo Gonzalez of Boston was in line with a “Basic College Math” book at the bookstore, he spoke about his hopes to apply for the Nursing program after taking the prerequisites. He works part time now as a janitor in downtown Providence and is looking forward to his new path. “Everyone is really friendly here and the teachers are pretty great, too. Hopefully everything goes well, and I’m successful in my college career,” he said.

Behind the desk at the Bursar’s Office, senior tellers Tina Santarelli and Michelle Gonzalez dealt with a steady wave of questions coming from students about financial aid, payment plans, waivers and the like. Santarelli, who has been with the college for 15 years, said that the weeks leading up to the first week were typically the busiest. “I give out lollipops to the good ones and bad ones,” she joked – though she was serious about the lollipops.

“It’s exciting to see fresh faces that are eager to learn,” said Gonzalez.

One of those fresh faces was Emelin Cruz, who was in line with her husband, student Juan Cruz and their two-year-old son, Emiliano. They were signing up Emelin to take ESL classes. “I’ve been a student for a while,” explained Juan. “I dropped it for seven years, but came back after the baby was born. I’m going for business now; I’m a hairdresser and want to eventually own my own place, so I’m taking business to do it the right way.”

In the cafeteria at the Flanagan Campus in Lincoln, student James Driscoll was already hard at work on his math homework for the day. “It’s my second semester at the college,” said the Woonsocket native. “I figured CCRI would be a good starting place for me – it would help me prepare for further goals in general. My experience so far has been pretty useful.”

Driscoll said he was most looking forward to his Western Civilization I class, where he’d study his favorite subject – ancient cultures.

Another Woonsocket student, Victoria Andrews, had just started at the college and already found it “much different” than high school – in a very good way. “I feel more challenged and more independent,” she said.

CreightonCCRI student Gianno Creighton.

Like many of her classmates, Andrews works part-time – she still has the job she had in high school, packing groceries for Peapod in North Smithfield. Once she’s done with classes for the day, she said, she’d have to take the bus home and leave for work almost immediately. In the library, fellow working student Gianno Creighton of Pawtucket was wearing blue scrubs, as he’d later take off to the nursing home where he works as a CNA. Creighton hopes to enter the Nursing program and will be applying in February.

“I’m excited,” he said. “I’m almost 98 percent sure that I have everything I need.”

On the way out (or the way in, depending on your direction), Student Ambassador Pawan Pandey of Providence was waiting to offer students bottled water, cookies and directional advice. It’s Pandey’s last year at the college – the computer science major is planning to transfer to URI. He said that acting as a Student Ambassador for the college gave him an invaluable chance to meet new people and learn about the culture. Pandey was a consultant for a non-governmental organization in his native India before coming to the states, where he knew CCRI was his best bet to get the American educational credentials he needed to succeed.

“I was sure I needed to study further,” he said. “And CCRI was cheap – not in quality but in terms of money.”

Walking around during the opening week of classes, it’s hard not to catch some of the excitement that this diverse group of students experiences at the prospect of starting their future, and starting it now.

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Last Updated: 8/25/16