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Class of 2016 grads reflect on the journey,
share plans for their futures

May 25, 2016

Twins Kaisha and Erika Girard Twins Kaisha and Erika Girard are heading to Disney World in August to begin an internship through the Disney College Program. See more photos from commencement.

Almost two hours before the commencement procession began, members of CCRI’s Class of 2016 began quietly gathering in the rows of sixth-floor classrooms at the Knight Campus. They either sat reflecting, with their mortarboards resting on the desks in front of them, or chatted in the sunlit hallways.

For many, graduation was reached while juggling full-time jobs, parenting, military service and life’s bumps along the way. For some, graduation was a stepping stone to a four-year degree while, for others, it marked a new direction.

No matter their background or where they were going from here, the CCRI graduates interviewed found their experiences rewarding, the programs challenging and the faculty caring and inspiring.

Among them was veteran Stephen J. Iezzi of East Greenwich, a lance corporal in the U.S. Marines and petty officer second class in the U.S. Navy. After four years in the Marines and two in the Navy, he was graduating from CCRI with plans to attend the University of Vermont for a bachelor’s degree in political science. He is considering a law career or working for the federal government, perhaps the Justice Department or FBI.

“I loved it here,” said Iezzi, who graduated with highest honors as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. “The professors were great, always easy to approach.”

As twins Kaisha and Erika Girard of Cumberland walked up the ramp holding their beautifully decorated caps and wearing their gold Phi Theta Kappa tassels and highest honors cords, their mother proudly snapped pictures. The sisters both majored in General Studies and are planning to begin an internship program at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in August.

They said they had an amazing experience at CCRI. “It was the right fit for me,” said Kaisha. “I had incredible professors who really made my time special and challenged me.”

“I loved it,” said Erika of her years at CCRI. “We were able to thrive here. We had all our classes together and it was like having a built-in study partner.”

Waiting for her classmates to arrive, Carmen Figueroa was both proud but sad that her graduation day had arrived. “My experience was great. To be honest, I don’t want to leave,” she said. “My teachers were very supportive.”

Figueroa plans to earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law enforcement and work in forensics.

Melody Vasquez“Change the plan, never the goal,” read Melody Vasquez’s cap. “Nothing ever goes as I expect it,” explained the Providence resident, “but I always get there somehow.” Graduating with a degree in General Studies, Vasquez plans to attend Rhode Island College for a bachelor’s degree in business and would love to own a bed-and-breakfast one day.

She worked during her years at CCRI at the front desk of the Omni Hotel. To earn more, she took a supervisory position for almost a year, working from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., arriving home to nap before her 1 p.m. classes.

“CCRI was a great experience,” she said. “I had great teachers and I’m going to keep in touch with so many of them. They realize that you are here because you really want this.”

Suzannah Izzi of Warwick, who will receive her degree this summer in Professional Studies, hopes to work in the medical field. The faculty at CCRI, she said, “is awesome. They are always available, always there to help. There is a great group of teachers here who are invested in their students and want them to succeed.”

After working for 29 years in early childhood education, Rebecca Repoza, 49, of East Providence, was excited to receive her associate degree in Human Services. The director of A Little Red Schoolhouse child care center in Riverside, she began taking classes part time in 1998. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she took two years off for a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and reconstruction, before returning to earn her “very, very meaningful” degree.

“I never thought this day would come,” said Repoza, who plans to continue her education at the University of Rhode Island. Her cap paid tribute to those who motivated her: her best friend and former boss who died from breast cancer; her daughters; her parents; and her son, whom she lost as a baby.

Repoza took most of her classes at the Liston Campus in Providence. “I love everything about it; the diversity, the people, the community feeling. This is the best program around,” she said. “I highly recommend it.”

Joseph CarboneThe message on Joseph Carbone’s cap read “It’s never too late” as he prepared to receive his associate degree in General Studies nearly 20 years after he began.

The owner of Carbone’s Cleaning in North Providence, he said he was inspired by his wife’s grandfather, who earned his degree as a senior citizen. Carbone plans to attend Rhode Island College for a degree in social work, and hopes to work with others like himself recovering from addiction. “I’ve been in their shoes,” he said.

Julie Gottschalk said she would be excited when the ceremony was over. “No more papers, no more exams,” said the North Providence resident, who wore a tag on her sneakers that said, “Dream. Believe. Achieve.” She added, “I believed I would graduate and I did.”

Gottschalk gave birth to twins while living on Long Island and working for Verizon more than eight years ago. One did not live past five weeks; the other remained in neonatal intensive care for 10 weeks.

“The nurses kept telling me I would be a fabulous nurse. I missed the nursing program, but there was an opening in respiratory therapy, so I enrolled. My daughter, who is almost 8, says “my mom is going to save babies like me. There were a lot of lumps and bumps along the way, but my daughter kept me focused. I got laid off from my job at Verizon, and I believe my daughter meant to show me that this is my path.”

Gottschalk juggled raising her daughter while working full time, studying and completing her clinical rotations. “I believed I would graduate and I did. I even got high honors.”

Marcie Louton, 54, of North Scituate also was graduating with high honors in the Respiratory Therapy program, but her path to graduation was a bit different. A graduate of Michigan State University with a degree in anthropology, she had always worked in the health care field. When her boss retired and she and her husband, a Bryant University professor, faced an empty nest, Louton decided to return to school for a new career.

“This was a great experience. I graduated from a Big Ten school, spent a semester at Bryant and found an equivalent education here. The standards are very high and I was very impressed.”

Before long, it was time for the graduates to file out of the classrooms and line up for the procession.

Before she walked off, Adrienne M. Benton of Providence was excited and proud to earn her nursing degree with honors after 12 years. She worked in a nursing home and raised four children while attending school. “I don’t know how, but I’m here. I did it through the grace of God. I’m proof that you can do it.”

At the appointed time, the hallways were filled with graduates ready to file down the stairs, down the ramps and outside to the Vincent A. Cullen Field House where their families, friends and futures awaited. 

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Last Updated: 8/25/16