Valedictorian Denise Foss gives a recorded address for BCC's 60th commencement.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Any other year, the graduates of Berkshire Community College and their friends and families would be filling The Shed at Tanglewood in Lenox.
But instead of taking the stage, speakers stood alone in front of a backdrop. And instead of being handed their certificates and diplomas, the more than 200 graduates' names were read as their pictures were shown.
What didn't change was the ceremony's broadcast on Pittsfield Community Television, allowing at least a virtual coming together of the BCC community to mark their significant accomplishments.
President Ellen Kennedy reminded those watching how commencement celebrates not just the achievements but the persistence of the graduates in often overcoming life challenges to walk across the Tanglewod stage.
"We are in awe of each and every one of you. You are our heroes," she said. "But for the class of 2020, we also celebrate and congratulate you on your resilience. So many of the expectations, you, and we had for your final semester ...
"This has been up-ended. On top of all the obstacles you would ordinarily have overcome, you also had to deal with completing your coursework remotely, distancing yourself from faculty and college staff, whose closeness is so important. Perhaps losing your job, your child care, and maybe even the security of having food, and a place to live. And yet — here you are. OK, so maybe not here, maybe there graduating with the class of 2020."
The college campus has been closed since mid-March because of the novel coronavirus. The pandemic also forced this remote broadcasting of commencement ceremonies — and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state's first community college.
"You earned your degree because of persistence, and resilience," Kennedy said. "People are judged most accurately not in easy times, but in difficult times. You all passed the test, not just meeting the high standards for a degree or certificate at BCC, but in doing so under circumstances no other class had to deal with."
One of those students, Denise Foss, "embodies the transformational power to the BCC offers to our students and our community," said Provost Adam Klepetar.
Foss, the valedictorian is also among the first graduates of the colleges early childhood education program. She said her journey to BCC was not an easy one and, after struggling in middle and high school, convinced herself that college was out of reach.
But after marrying and raising a family, Foss began to consider higher education — but not without trepidation.
"I kept thinking to myself about the what-ifs: what if I fail, what if I'm the oldest student in the class, what if I start the classes and I don't finish them," she said. "The what ifs were endless."
Foss said if she'd taken actor Jim Carrey's advice on controlling fear, "I might have started my college degrees sooner, but I'm not sure I would have appreciated that journey quite as much."
She found her time at BCC to both challenging and rewarding, and offering a supportive environment for non-traditional students. Her academic journey was not without its deadlines and anxieties, and studies and papers and tests.
"I can remember walking into my first class and thinking, are you kidding me, I'm old enough to be everybody's mother," she said. "The good news is that I was able to push the fear aside and found courage to go back the next week. I never looked back. And I couldn't be more grateful."
Foss thanked the college and its faculty, and her family, for believing in her and making a dream come true. She's now planning to continue her education at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
"We are certainly living in unprecedented times. Today, for the first time in history, Berkshire Community College will commence at a virtual graduation," she said. "Although we cannot be together, physically, I'm feeling each other's excitement. I know we are all filled with joy of celebrating our own personal achievements."
The ceremonies were recorded for video but some of the trappings of the regular commencement were spliced in: Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler, in his traditional tails andd top hat, brought the gathering to order and ending; student Monica Bliss sang "The Star-Spangled Banner"; the Berkshire Highlanders, who normally lead the procession, played selections; retiring Dean of Students Beth Wallace read the graduates names for the last time; and Board of Trustees Chairwoman Darlene Rodowicz conferred the degrees.
Kennedy also recognized three retired faculty members recently selected by their peers to the status emeritus "to show respect for their distinguised career." They are Lois Cooper (foreign language), Heidi Sammon (English) and Sherry Scheer (physical education).
In closing, Kennedy reminded the graduates that they will still be have a chance to walk across the Tanglewood stage and be handed their degree next year with the class of 2021.
"You're all invited to join all of us, the faculty and staff of BCC, our board and the class of 2021 at The Shed at Tanglewood on June 14 next year to walk across the stage in front of the crowd you deserve as we recognize you, again, for what you have accomplished in this extraordinarily difficult time," she said. "I look forward to seeing you then. Congratulations."
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