After waiting two years to hold an in-person graduation ceremony, the 366 men and women who received diplomas and certificates from Southwestern Oregon Community College had a lot to celebrate.
The college invited the students and a several hundred guests to Proper Hall to celebrate the Class of 2022 during the first large, in-person ceremony in more than two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Today we celebrate the accomplishments of you, the Class of '22," SWOCC President Patty Scott told the graduates. "I'm guessing some of you might have graduated high school in the Class of 2020, and you might not have had a great graduation. We're very grateful we get to have a live ceremony. It's been a long two years."
Scott told the graduates what they have overcome while attending college during the middle of COVID-19 has set them up for great things in the future. She said they learned to adapt quickly, using technology to attend class when the college was shut down. Those lessons will pay off in the long run, Scott said.
"Life is like a pandemic," she said. "It's a roller coaster ride with ups and downs."
The Class of 2022 included students from 21 states and eight countries, and 45 of the SWOCC graduates attended class in the Curry County campus.
"Today, we celebrate a turning point in the lives of our 2022 class," Scott said. "The resilience of this class is amazing."
She told the students as the move forward what they learned at SWOCC will stay with them.
"Community colleges are a place of transformation. Sometimes it's a desire to keep learning that helps us move on to better times," Scott said. "I look out at you and I wonder how are you going to transform yourselves and how are you going to transform the world."
Susan Anderson, vice chair of the SWOCC board of directors, also applauded the resilience of the Class of 2022.
"Graduation is an accomplishment for anyone, but you all not only attended class, you overcame the biggest pandemic of the last 100 years," Anderson said. "That's a huge accomplishment. Whether you are continuing your education or joining the workforce, you have opportunities no one before you has ever had. You have the opportunity to select the dreams you want. I wish you nothing but the best."
Kara Klietz spoke on behalf of the Class of 2022, and told her classmates the different paths that brought them together at SWOCC will be something they can always hold on to.
"I've mad some of the best memories with some of the best people, and it's kind of sad knowing I will be moving on," she said. "There were so many moments I didn't know if I was going to make it, but thanks to you, I did."
Klietz said in her close group of friends, there are students from different states and with different backgrounds. But they came together as students at Southwestern, which is something they can always hold close to their hearts.
"We are all going to take our different trails that will lead to different summits and different beautiful views," Klietz said. "While we're all going to take different paths, it all started here at SWOCC."
One person who knows how that start can lead to a lifetime of success in Carolyn Thompson, the 2022 distinguished alumni at Southwestern. Thompson grew up in Coos Bay, making her way through the foster system. But she always said school was her escape, and her time at SWOCC put her on a path to success.
"I never imagined in' 84, I would be standing here with you celebrating your success," Thompson said. "A graduation may seem like a finish line, and it is."
But Thompson told the Class of 2022, the finish line was not the end. Instead it was a place to start. For Thompson, school and later SWOCC, was her start.
"My path to SWOCC started when I was 13," she said. "I made a conscious choice to attend college. I remember asking my mom why we did not leave the abusive relationship we were in. She said, 'If I left, I could not feed you.'"
So Thompson decided at that young age her education was a chance to ensure she could always be safe.
"The only thing I had in my life was school," she said. "When high school ended, that was gone and I was terrified. But I could go to college. I chose Southwestern. SWOCC was good for me and good to me."
Thompson graduated in 1984 with an associate's degree in business and administration. She went on to Oregon State University and became an accountant. For decades, she has worked in the Coos Bay community, becoming very successful. And, according to Thompson, it's all because of SWOCC.
"SWOCC and the people who challenged me set me on a path to success," she said. "I received many scholarships in my college career, and I vowed somehow, somewhere to pay that forward."
Thompson does that now as a board member of the Southwestern Community College Foundation, which raises money to provide scholarships to SWOCC students.
After Thompson congratulated the Class of 2022, the moment the students and their supporters had been waiting for finally arrived, as each of the graduates walked up to the podium, had their names read, used hand sanitizer and received their diplomas, officially making them graduates of Southwestern Oregon Community College.