On Saturday, June 27, Maria De Los Angele’s Torres Hernandez delivered the student address for Plaza College’s 98th Commencement ceremony. After greeting the Board of Trustees, the Callahan family, administration, faculty, graduates, and families, she shared the story of her journey to Plaza College and inspirational words about the future. Below is an excerpt from her speech.
“This morning, I cannot help but to think back to the first time I ever walked into Plaza College in Jackson Heights, as I am sure many of you remember. For me, it was September 2011. I began my first semester at Plaza College frightened and confused. I was 40 years old, and I had been out of Vocational High School since 1990. I had worked in the geriatric nursing field for over 16 years, but some health issues forced me to take an early retirement. That September – I knew it was time for a change. I knew I had to set some goals and stick to the plan I made for myself.
While attending Plaza College, I faced challenges, as so many of us did. I faced health issues, financial issues, and I even ran into some storms… no, really, storms! Like so many of you, my life was greatly affected by Hurricane Sandy. For weeks, my home had no electricity. Plaza College became my refuge and refused to let me surrender. The doors were always open, and I was able to spend my days and evenings on campus, working on my assignments, so I would not fall behind.
But the challenges didn’t stop there. On April 21, 2014, our Jackson Heights campus caught fire, devastating us all. However, the Callahan family worked day and night to accommodate students with a special summer semester, and within 85 days, we began classes at our new campus. Wow! I went straight back to school, and accomplished three classes in the summer of 2014. We are grateful to the Callahan family for the remarkable opportunity given to us all. Again, the Callahan family has shown us all the importance of not giving up.
Looking out at you today, I know that behind the success and the celebration, you all have had your own challenges; some may be unknown to the rest of us. But believe me: You are not alone. It doesn’t matter how many times we fall. It is the drive in getting back up that makes it all worthwhile. It is then we develop our true character.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The Function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence and character is the goal of true education.” So what determines true character? I have my own philosophy.
First, character starts by becoming trustworthy, by being honest, being loyal, and standing by your friends and family. Second, respect. Respect yourself, and be tolerant and accepting of other people’s differences. Third, be responsible. Plan ahead, persevere, and keep on trying. Fourth, along the way, practice fairness. Be open-minded, listen, and play by the rules. Lastly, forgive. Learn to show empathy towards others.
Our character has made us successful college graduates. Knowledge is important, but what good is the tool of education when we don’t commit in giving a hand to others? Today, we must vow to be good citizens. Reach out in your communities and volunteer. Be a good neighbor and learn to work well with others.
Life is about living and learning each day to be humble. Knowledge is not enough; we must take the other qualities we gained through our education with us in life. Plaza College has also taught us the value of working in teams, and made us understand that real leaders can accomplish their goals and finish projects. Let us also not forget the moments we showed true citizenship in our community from bake sales, Breast Cancer walks, and many other fundraising activities, all for humanitarian causes. These allowed us to learn the true meaning of making a difference. At Plaza College, every day, we work together in the spirit of caring and humanity.
Today, we are all thankful to the Plaza community for making this passage unforgettable for us. I also thank my family for supporting me through this path, especially my children. I thank my son Ashton for continuing to achieve! Yesterday, you graduated high school with a presidential award from the White House. Aidan, for being inducted into the National Junior Honor Society. How proud you both have made me. Ashley, what can I say? I’m here because you are the reason I can fly. Most importantly, I must thank the mighty Lord whom I trust for never letting me down. We all believe in something, even if we have different faiths.
Graduates, this morning, you put on these caps and gowns, and I must say you are wearing them well! Here’s to perseverance! Here’s to character! Here’s to the Plaza College class of 2015! CONGRATULATIONS!”