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HCC graduates told this is their day

May 16, 2009|By MARIE GILBERT

HAGERSTOWN - When Sonya Reel received her degree Saturday morning at Hagerstown Community College's 62nd commencement, it was a triumph some people couldn't have predicted.

But never underestimate the determination and drive of a young woman who wants to fulfill a life's dream.

Reel, a Smithsburg resident, was born with cerebral palsy.

"Sometimes, getting through a day can be challenging," she said.

But it never has been an excuse.

"I work hard for what I want," she said.

And what she wanted was an education.

When she was 14, Reel said she dropped out of eighth grade "for a whole bunch of reasons."

But when she became a mother for the first time at the age of 22, she had a revelation.

"I looked at my son and realized that some day, I was going to have to help him with homework," she said. "He became a catalyst for my returning to school."

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Reel said she received her GED, then began classes at Frederick (Md.) Community College, determined to get a degree.

But the birth of her second child, multiple surgeries and taking care of her ill father put things on hold.

"But getting my degree was my personal life's goal," she said. "I wasn't giving up."

Reel's dream came true Saturday. But she surpassed even her own expectations. She graduated with high honors, receiving two associate degrees, one in human services and another in psychology.

She only wishes her father would have been there to watch her walk across the stage.

"He died before I had completed my studies," she said. "He was the one person who believed I could do this, absolutely. Today, I'm thinking of him a lot."

Reel was among 392 students who received degrees and certificates from HCC. About 245 students attended the ceremony before a crowd of more than 2,000 supporters at the Athletic, Recreation and Community Center on the HCC campus.

"This is the best day of the year," said Donna Rudy, dean of student affairs. "Every graduation is exciting. It never gets old."

HCC President Guy Altieri congratulated the graduates, saying "today, we pay tribute to your hard work, dedication and achievements. This is your day."

Among the graduates was Fred Vantz of Hancock, who had returned to college after losing his job at Rayloc last March.

"I'm 56 and only had a few years to go until retirement," he said.

Vantz said he had started his degree in 1973, "but life took me down a different road. I got married and decided I needed a good, full-time job. So I quit college."

Thirty-five years later, Vantz returned to HCC. On Saturday, he received an associate degree in general studies and a one-year certificate in biotechnology.

"As an older student, I thought it might be hard getting back in the classroom, taking courses like chemistry and algebra," he said. "But I think I was more focused than when I was younger. I got all As and Bs."

Now, he's sending out résumés and thinking about pursuing a bachelor's degree.

"I never thought getting a degree would be a reality," he said. "But this has been a wonderful opportunity."

Russell Thomas, 21, of Hagerstown, received his associate degree Saturday and will be transferring to Frostburg (Md.) University, where he will study biology.

Several years ago, Thomas said he wasn't sure if he would go to college and thought about working two jobs instead.

"But I realized I needed a degree to get a decent job," he said. "I'm happy I made that decision."

Thomas hopes to eventually have a career in environmental science and has a goal of working for the government.

But Saturday, he wasn't thinking too far ahead.

"I want to enjoy the day with my family," he said. "They're ecstatic."

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