PATERSON, NJ - At 53 years old she may not be what is considered a “traditional” student, yet she was no less excited, her family no less proud, of the major academic accomplishment that she had achieved.

On Tuesday Laura Norona, as well as nearly 350 of her classmates, graduated from Passaic County Community College. The Paterson campus’ gymnasium was at near capacity as close to 150 of those graduates made their way up to the stage to receive their diplomas from PCCC President Steven Rose. 

Going back to 2002 when just 272 students graduated from PCCC, the event itself, Rose said, showed just how much PCCC has grown. The ceremony marked the first graduation held during the winter, catering to students who had completed their studies in August or December 2019. A second graduation, as is more traditional, will still be held later this year for students finishing in May.

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Out of school for more than 30 years, Norona, already employed by Trinitas Hospital in a social services role, returned to college so that she could “do better” and “make a difference.”

Saying her experience as a returning student was both challenging and amazing, Norona credited her teachers for helping her get through the rigors of the degree program she had finally completed. 

Stephanie Quinones and Anielia Wright, both on the verge of receiving their degrees in early childhood education, also shared part of their college journey with TAPinto Paterson. Quinones, who started at William Paterson University before coming back to PCCC, said that she found the opportunity to do half of her coursework online and half on campus “more convenient,” while Wright, a more recent arrival from Jamaica, offered that staying local gave her an opportunity to socialize and learn about different cultures thanks to the diversity of the student body.

Studying at PCCC is “as great a start as any university,” Quinones said, and Wright believes the opportunity to “learn new study methods” will serve her well as she begins the next phase of her college education at William Paterson. 

Like most other graduation ceremonies, Tuesday’s combined celebration with inspiration, both from guest speakers such as Freeholder John Bartlett, who advised graduates to never underestimate the value of doing a good job, or to ever stop networking, and the graduates themselves, including co-valedictorian Rebecca Kreh.

Earning an associate degree while maintaining a perfect 4.0 grade point average as a business administration major, Kreh encouraged her counterparts to “take struggles as lessons.”

“When we act like Eagles,” Kreh said, explaining that the large birds are known to soar about storms, “we can all succeed.” 

For one graduate and speaker, salutatorian Casey Bucceri, the accomplishment of earning his degree provided more evidence that no matter how hopeless things might seem there is always an opportunity to change your life’s direction. Just a few years removed from a life of addiction and homelessness, Bucceri recalled stopping on the campus while on a pass from Eva’s Village where he was living at the time. 

That visit led him to enroll on the spot, beginning a college journey during which, often going days replacing sleep with work and study, he achieved a 3.98 grade point average. The now student success story, who at times saved money by walking from his home Clifton to the campus, is currently enrolled at Rutgers where, despite suffering a heart attack in the fall, he maintained straight A’s his first semester.

“I wasn’t happy with myself when I was always in trouble,” Bucceri said in an interview for the PCCC website. “Now I feel so comfortable with myself. I love libraries. I love being a nerd. I love who I always was, but was scared to be.”

On his way to becoming a social worker, and with a goal of starting his own non-profit to help troubled youth through sports, Bucceri added that “PCCC did this for me. This is who I really am, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Tassels turned and diplomas in hand the graduates heard one more time from Rose who, coming down off the stage to join them at floor level, said that while their education might be complete they’d all remain “members of the family forever.”

Another family member happy to see graduation day come was Jaelyn Norona, who even at 11 years old showed an appreciation for her mother’s accomplishment. “She wanted a better job, so she could do more.”

“I’m happy for her,” Jaelyn said, adding that she was even happier that with classes over, “I’m happy that now I can spend more time with her.”

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