by Dom Fonce
July 12, 2023
Dressed in his blue gown, cap in hand, Christian Keller asks me for a favor. It’s about an hour before the 2023 MCCTC Adult Career Center’s Recognition Ceremony begins. Christian is set to be the Graduate Speaker—climb the stairs, stand behind the podium, and give a speech to 300 people—I can tell he’s nervous.
I take him back to my office, and he passes me a piece of paper, handwritten notes scribbled on both sides. He asks me to read over his speech to see if it’s good. I read through, seeing all the beats of his life story, events he’s told me about. I hand it back to him, tell him, “It reads great” and “You’re going to do great.” I can tell he’s still nervous, but reassured by my words. We smile at each other, shake hands, and leave each other—he goes to wait with the other graduates, while I go help set up the final touches.
The ceremony is being held in the Joyce E. Brooks Conference Center. Inside is much larger than I expect. This is my first time in the conference center, and it feels impossible that a room this size is hidden away on MCCTC’s campus. The lights hang high on the ceiling. A projector cycles celebratory photos and messages above the stage. Family and friends file in, filling up the empty 300 seats.
Soon, the room is packed—chatter floods the space, then dulls down to silence as the graduates crowd the doorway. In a line, the graduates slowly step across the aisles, to their seats, then sit. Some graduates have decorated their caps—covered in photographs of friends, cursive celebratory writing, and plastic jewels. As everyone settles, MCCTC’s superintendent, John Zehentbauer, is the first to speak at the podium. Heartfelt praise leaves his mouth. He discusses the triumphs of the past, the joy of the present, and the promise of the future.
Then, Laura Frost, the keynote speaker, faces the crowd. Laura graduated from MCCTC in 2008, then went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Chamberlain College in 2011. She currently works as a nurse and sits on the MCCTC EMT Advisory Board. With a tinge of self-deprecating humor, she discusses the un-miraculous, yet extremely important, aspect of all our identities—being a worker. To Laura, our working lives cannot be cliched. She cannot put a flowery persona, or sweet words, over work. Work is a necessary, valuable part of life, but it is also difficult, and we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the truth of it. However, her speech makes clear that furthering one’s education is a true accomplishment and commends all the graduates for their hard-fought success. She especially highlights her fellow students who faced tragedy, raised families, or maintained full-time jobs while earning their certificates from MCCTC. Each graduate has their own unique, individualized struggles, yet they overcame them, and that is how Laura knows every graduate is living their most fulfilled lives.
Lastly, Christian Keller goes up, takes his note from his back pocket. I can tell his nerves have mostly subsided. His stance is serious, and his face looks stoic, as he begins to speak. He discusses his life, the loss of his two children, and the second chance that MCCTC gave him. He goes on to thank multiple people for helping him graduate. He also thanks me for writing a story about him. It becomes clear that Christian is a person who doesn’t forget the help others give, that during his time of praise, he will divert praise onto others. Now, Keller is working full-time as an EMT and plans to train as a firefighter.
The next 15-20 minutes is spent giving out a dozen or so student awards, including acknowledgments for GPA and attendance, as well as awards that showcase graduates who faced adversity during their education. Upon earning an award, each graduate climbs the stage steps, shakes hands or gives hugs, then sits back down.
Finally, each graduate’s name is read aloud, and they come and get their certificates. Certificates are given out in order of program—Medical Assistant, Welding, EMT, STNA, Phlebotomy, and High School Equivalence Diploma. Each graduate walks across the aisle, smile on their faces, as they are given their folder. Then they climb the steps and are greeted by their individual instructors. They go through a line of handshakes and hugs, then step off the stage for a picture. Many students cry or raise up their hands as their families cheer. Some yell to the sky in relief or comically flex their muscles to the crowd, making everyone laugh. As the last graduate passes through the congratulatory gauntlet, the room erupts in clapping and whooping. Those who walked in as students, walk out as professionals.
Afterwards, families rush to snag photos of their graduates, certificates in hand. The full class is lined up on stage, and pictures are taken. Others syphon from the conference center to a room with refreshments and sweets. As the night goes on, I watch family members, graduates, and instructors introduce themselves to one another. I see graduates slap shoulders with their instructors, making plans to get drinks or dinner in the future. I see friend groups, who will soon break off into their own life paths, take selfies. I see graduates introduce friends to their parents, whom they’ve heard so much about. All smiling. All forgetting, at least for this moment, the necessary work they will wake up and do—all forgetting the stress of everyday life for the sake of inhaling a joyous now.
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Dom Fonce is a Marketing Content Writer for Mahoning County Career and Technical Center Adult Career Center. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Youngstown State University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the NEOMFA. He has published two books of poetry. His work can be found at domfoncepoetry.com.