Last May, I was sitting at commencement and looking through the names in the program. Bridget, who dressed up like a nurse for Halloween when she was four and was now getting her nursing degree; Sara, who cried her first day of school because she was so scared to be coming back after being out for almost 30 years; Ryan, who completed his transfer degree and is still planning to be an astronaut after he finishes. I had gotten to know each of these students during their first few weeks in college and had been privileged to share their college experience each step of the way. And, as I watched them walk across the stage, it got me thinking about the very first community college commencement ceremony I attended.

At 23, I walked out of my graduate school classroom and on to a community college campus for the first time in my life. As I pulled into the parking lot, I really didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t that I had any negative thoughts about the community college system; honestly, I had never thought much about it at all. Now, as a graduate student, I had been assigned some of my internship hours at the local community college. I was excited to arrive on the scene and see what I could learn. After all, college was college, wasn’t it?

Immediately, I noticed that something about this learning culture was different. Some parts of it I liked better, and some not as much. At the end of my first week, I attended the graduation ceremony. During his remarks, the president spoke to what distinguishes the community college system from other higher education organizations. He referenced the idea that, in lieu of standing behind prescriptive admissions standards, the community college system stands at our front doors and welcomes in each and every student that has an interest in learning. Then, we engage with them as partners in a learning process intended to transform both the student and the school.

In reflecting on this powerful message, I became hooked to the community college system, our role in higher education, and the value we return to our local communities. The students we serve are better for having spent their time with us. The community college classroom experience is unparalleled as we educate high school dual enrolled students, young adults, single parents, business leaders, and grandmothers all at the same time. The classroom conversation, fueled by a diversity of lived experiences as broad as it is deep, is a signature benefit. And as our students leave – whether they are headed to work in our hospitals or businesses or to pursue further education – they carry with them a skill set, a respect for camaraderie, and a depth of thinking. In addition, they carry forward the college’s reputation.

To maintain this reputation of success, our commitment to quality must be unwavering. If we’ve done our job, the person walking across the stage at graduation must be fundamentally different from the one who arrived to campus that first day. They must be at a new place intellectually, socially, mentally, and spiritually. They must have a path in place for them and a sincere belief they can excel in achieving their goals. And my own research has shown that incoming students make critical decisions related to retention and graduation based on the relationships that have started to develop within the first six weeks of college.

As providers of the first-year experience, and advocates for the two-year college experience, we wear many hats. We advise, orient, teach, and engage. And most importantly, we serve as the tour guides and cheerleaders for this critical window of student success. We are experts in navigating the logistics of college, asking challenging questions, and probing reflective thinking. This instills in us a co-ownership of the experience for each student.

And while we momentarily bask in the glory of our successful graduates, we savor what Bridget, Sara, and Ryan have accomplished and the significance it has for us. Still, we can’t linger too long. After all, there are new students here, knocking on the door, ready to get started . . .