Underneath his green robe, Steven Harris didn’t get dressed up, instead opting for a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers.
“I didn’t need to be here today, I didn’t need to come. I know what I did,” he said Sunday. “I’m here for only one reason: to show my kids how important education is.”
Harris, 45, of Spring Valley, was one hundreds of students to walk Sunday in Rockland Community College’s Commencement Program at the Eugene Levy Fieldhouse at RCC's main campus in Ramapo. Harris took paralegal studies classes at RCC, finishing the two-year program in three semesters. He’s currently in the process of earning his legal studies Bachelor of Science degree at Purchase, after which he plans on going to law school.
“I’ve always wanted to go to law school, and about two years ago I found myself unemployed so I went for it. I don’t think you’re ever to old to get education,” Harris said. “Actually, I’m found as I’ve gotten older I appreciate school more than I did when I was younger. These kids complain about classes and whatever, but I’m going to school, have a full-time job and a wife and two kids and I’m not complaining about anything. I finished here with a 3.6 [GPA], and I’ve found so many kids don’t really care about how they do. They’re here because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do, or what their parents want them to do. But I’m here because I want to be.”
Harris’ wife and two children were at the commencement ceremony and posed for pictures afterward, taking turns using the camera and holding the diploma.
“It’s important to me to just show them an education is important,” he said.
Harris, who works with disabled children, said he plans on going into disability law.
Between many of the speeches Sunday afternoon bringing it up and a big banner, it’s easy to see that RCC prides itself on having a diverse student body, both in racial makeup and age. There were many others who walked like Harris, that have gone back to school, as well as many younger students as well.
“You want to know the best thing about RCC? [President] Cliff Wood,” said Harris. “Cliff Wood is just an incredibly generous man who will help any student with any problem they have, whether it’s a schedule problem or they can’t get a book they need. He was just always willing to help no matter if you were a younger student with a full schedule or an older one taking just a class or two.”
Wood spoke at the ceremony telling the students that this isn’t an end as much as a beginning. That’s also true for Robert Harris, of Spring Valley, who also graduated from RCC’s two-year program.
“I’m looking to transfer now so I can go get an education degree,” Harris said, adding he hopes to teach fifth or sixth grade after earning a degree.
The actual commencement sppech was given by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who spoke about advice from her grandmother and told the graduates to “never say something can’t be done,” referencing an election she won despite being told she wouldn’t be able to pull out a victory.
State Sen. David Carlucci, D-New City, who graduated from RCC in 2000 before going to Cornell, also spoke at the ceremony, praising RCC for being one of the most affordable colleges in New York state and saying he will work to keep it that way because “college education should be attainable for anyone” despite their financial situation.
Carlucci also told the graduates to think about where they want to be in 10 years.
“Set goals that get you up early and keep you out late,” he said.
He also told the story of Colonel Sanders, the man who started KFC. Sanders, Carlucci said, told people he had the best chicken recipe, and if restaurant owners would just try it, they could use it as long as they gave Sanders commission for it. Carlucci said Sanders talked a thousand people who all said no before getting his first yes, using the story as a way to demonstrate how to keep moving toward a goal even if someone turns you away at first.
“Think about what you can accomplish if you can pass a thousand no’s,” Carlucci said.
New City’s , the president of RCC’s Student Government Association, also spoke at the commencement, listing many of the accolades his classmates have achieved, as well as going through all the various events RCC has had students attend. Mathew also spoke about the student body’s diversity, saying in one class you meet a student who’s a mother of two and works a full-time job, while in another you can meet a married couple where the husband and wife are both 72-years-old and in another class you might sit next to an 85-year-old man taking classes to broaden his mind.
“Through our many successes and failures, we have learned a great deal,” he said. “We have learned most of all how to succeed.”
He closed his speech with one final piece of advice for his fellow graduates:
“Do all you can to become everything you were meant to be.”