In the News | Online graduation ceremony celebrates ‘the COVID-19 class’ at Three Rivers

Norwich (The Day June 13,2020)— Many Three Rivers Community College students have experienced disruptions as they struggled to earn a college degree — work, family life, physical challenges, language barriers — but a global pandemic added a different twist for the Class of 2020.

Instead of gathering on the college lawn in Saturday’s perfect weather, the approximately 450 graduates receiving degrees and certificates celebrated at home as they watched the virtual ceremony online. About 190 students filed personal profiles online to receive congratulatory notes from family and friends.

“You will always be remembered as the COVID-19 class when you talk about your graduation from Three Rivers in the days and years to come,” college President Mary Ellen Jukoski said. “Your lives are going to be marked by the pandemic in the same way that previous generations experienced Pearl Harbor and World War II, the Vietnam War, 9/11, and the recent national events revealing some ugly and enduring inequities in American society.”

online grad

Wilfredo Dolores reacts as his name is announced while his mother, Sandra Santana, captures it with a video on his cellphone while watching the Three Rivers Community College graduation ceremony Saturday, June 13, 2020, at their home in New London. Dolores’ aunt and uncle Nery Santana and Ricardo Francisco and grandfather Miguel Santana also watched the ceremony. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Jukoski said more than the pandemic, 2020 graduates will face the challenges of persistent racial inequities and the call for social justice.

“Can the disruption wrought by COVID-19 be a call to action for the graduates of the Class of 2020?” she said. “Can you show us how to create a new world, a world more kind and compassionate, where social justice inequities are addressed? Your graduation is an invitation to use your education to begin to heal the afflictions of society by applying the best of what you have learned in your head and felt in your heart.”

Graduate Wilfredo Dolores, 25, celebrated Saturday with his mother and grandmother at their New London home. Dolores, one of five siblings, became the first in his family to graduate from college, earning an associate degree in engineering sciences.

Dolores immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic four years ago. He applied to Three Rivers and started learning English.

At first, he said, school was “kind of easy,” because he was taking math classes. He got a job working in a nursing home, and school got tougher.

“The first semester, I would cry every single day because I was trying to learn the language and not fall behind,” Dolores said. “I had to write down everything and go home and try to figure it out.”

He will transfer to the University of Connecticut to major in manufacturing and business and is looking for internship opportunities in manufacturing.

Graduate Doug Capazzi of Groton planned to watch Saturday’s ceremony with his very supportive girlfriend, Allison Keck of Waterford. Afterward, Capazzi planned to celebrate with family and friends at his favorite restaurant, Two Brothers Pizza in Salem.

Capazzi, a 1998 graduate of Ledyard High School, joined the U.S. Army that September and served two tours in Iraq. He injured his back on his second tour and left the Army as a staff sergeant to be home for his young son. Capazzi held different jobs while working on his nonprofit, Guardians of the Purple Heart.

“Being available in that capacity I realized this is what I want to be doing full time, working with veterans,” Capazzi said. “I knew the only way to get that done, and to work with the veteran community, was I needed a degree.”

Using the GI Bill, Capazzi left his security job at the Millstone Power Station in 2018 and went to Three Rivers full time. Now 40, and with his son, Nicholas, in middle school, Capazzi graduated with an associate degree in psychology studies. He enrolled full time at Eastern Connecticut State University studying industrial/organizational psychology.

Capazzi said he felt “out of place” at first, sitting in classes with students 20 years younger than him, but became more comfortable in time.

“It’s a little bit weird, because I never saw myself going to college,” Capazzi said. “In high school, my grades were nothing to put on the refrigerator. One of the things I’m most proud of, I was able to stay on the dean’s list the whole time (at Three Rivers).”

Graduate Mary Ellen Wilcox, 61, of Norwich has seen global events disrupt her life before. A 1977 Norwich Free Academy graduate, Wilcox said she “walked away” from a college basketball scholarship for a chance to play on the U.S. Olympics handball team. She played in the Pan-Am games and trained for the 1980 Olympics. But President Jimmy Carter pulled out of the games in Russia in response to the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan.

Wilcox came home and entered the workforce. She enrolled at ECSU, but she found it “cold,” with no friends or support. She “met someone,” gave birth to a daughter and left college behind. Wilcox now is a licensed field adjuster in the Geico corporate office, traveling the country to assist with insurance claims following natural disasters.

But her family and Geico co-workers encouraged her to try college again. In 2016, her brother, Charles Wilcox, an English professor at Manchester Community College, took her to Three Rivers. She graduated Saturday with a 3.66 GPA and an associate degree in general studies.

Wilcox thanked several Three Rivers professors for their support, including Phil Mayer, Louise Summa and Edwin Muenzler.

“I was the oldest kid in the class,” Wilcox said. “Most were right out of high school. (Professor Mayer) was very patient with me, genuinely supportive. I said I’d been away from school 35-40 years. We used to take notes, now everyone has tablets, making PowerPoints. It’s a whole new world.”


—By Claire Bessette, The Day staff writer

The original article can be found here: “Online graduation ceremony celebrates ‘the COVID-19 class’ at Three Rivers”

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