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'I get to make them proud': 14K students to graduate from Miami Dade College

Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Miami Dade College students take a selfie during their graduation ceremony inside loanDepot park in Miami on May 1, 2021.

South Florida will soon have more than 14,000 new college graduates when students at Miami Dade College receive their degrees this month. MDC is holding three commencement ceremonies on Saturday at loanDepot park in Little Havana to celebrate the students’ academic achievements — and their perseverance.

According to MDC, this year’s graduates speak more than 60 languages and represent 124 countries. Some are the first in their families to graduate college. Some found the time between classes to launch their own business. And for some, it’ll be their first real chance to walk across the stage in a cap and gown.

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Biology student Jazmin Laughlin, like so many Class of 2020 high school grads, missed out on a traditional commencement ceremony two years ago.

“The coronavirus came during my senior year of high school so everything was canceled. Everything was virtual. The graduation wasn't like a real graduation,” she said. “So I'm very excited to be around my peers and see their faces and just acknowledge all the hard work that we've all put in.”

The 19-year-old is earning her associate’s degree and plans to transfer to Florida International University to get her bachelor’s. Ultimately she has her sights set on medical school.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I've always dressed up for Halloween as like a doctor or a surgeon. That got me really interested in it,” Laughlin said. “Back in 2019, I went to this summer workshop at the [University of Miami] medical school. They gave me an insight on what anesthesiologists do and I can see myself doing that.”

At times, nursing student Westley Santelises worked three jobs while going to MDC — and taking care of his three kids.

“There was many a day that I've had to take my kids in with me and they've sat at school with me while my professors have taught me and given the lesson of the day,” Santelises said. “I think it's important to be able to balance both. It’s very difficult to do so.”

As someone going back to school while trying to balance work and family, 35-year-old Santelises says there’s more MDC could do to support adult learners, like expanding access to on-campus childcare.

Speaking to WLRN during a break on his clinical rotation at a local hospital, Santelises says it’s worth the struggle to continue his education.

“Just today, I had a fascinating day. A few surgeries. Things that I never thought I would be seeing with my eyes or touching with my hands,” he said. “And I was able to experience that. And that was all brought on by education.”

Lisbet Hernandez will be graduating with an associate’s degree in business administration and the invaluable experience of starting her own small business during the pandemic. The 19-year-old launched an online clothing boutique out of her home, selling dresses, tops and purses. She’s grown the business so much it’s now her main source of income.

“I do everything by myself. I market, I take pictures, I do the inventory, I pack orders, I ship them, everything,” Hernandez said. “You walk into my office and it's just like boxes and racks. So I definitely want to expand more next year.”

She has hopes of opening a brick and mortar store and plans to continue studying business at FIU.

Graduating college is a major milestone — not just for Hernandez but for her family. Her parents are migrant workers who left Mexico to seek a better life in the United States.

Hernandez says her parents weren’t able to receive more than a primary school education. One generation later, now she has dreams of not only finishing her bachelor’s, but one day earning a master’s degree too.

“My dad is always like, this is what I came here for, you know? So you can do what I couldn’t do,” she said. “And I’m just very proud that I get to do that for them because they didn’t get the opportunity to do it.”

“I’m just so proud that I get to make them proud and make myself proud.”