By Andy McKeever
11:14PM / Friday, May 29, 2015
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — College wasn’t always in the cards for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
When she was growing up her family struggled to pay the bills. After high school she went to college but dropped out just two years in and started a family. Eventually, she paid $50 a semester at the University of Houston to become the first of her family with a degree. Her academic path would take her Rutgers School of Law-Newark and finally as professor of economics and finance at Harvard.
Both her background and education would inform her establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, designed to protect and inform average Americans.
“I watch big banks rake in millions of dollars by trapping people in debt. And I watched as millions of families lost their homes, lost their paychecks, lost their hope,” Warren said.
She went to Washington, D.C., and against the odds, and the banks’ lawyers and “army of lobbyists,” to create the bureau. On Friday, as a U.S. senator, she stood on the Tanglewood stage and told her story to 330 graduating Berkshire Community College students.
“You are celebrating reaching your goal. But, also celebrating the hard work, determination and grit that got you here. Those are the ingredients you’ll need to reach your next goal and the one after that and the one after that,” Warren said.
The path through college wasn’t easy for Warren. Nor was it easy for Juan Carrion-Almedia, who came to America from Ecuador. He wanted to work his way up but had to start with learning English. T,he valedictorian of the 2015 BCC class, he will be going to the University of Massachusetts’ Isenberg School of Management.
“I moved to the beautiful Berkshires from Ecuador six years ago with nothing but dreams and debt,” Carrion-Almedia said. “As an immigrant dreamer, I thought I could literally work my way up in the world. I worked and worked and worked.”
He went as far as he could in the hospitality industry. He wanted to get promoted and continue but didn’t have the knowledge or the education to do so.
“Many people suggested that I go back to school but I was hesitant. The trust is, I was terrified of picking up the books again and of the fear that I did not have what it takes to finish,” he said. “In my late twenties, I thought my school days were over and going to college only existed in my dreams.”
He met Eleanore Velez, who inspired him to attend. He worked and attended school and now “all those sleepless nights and hard sacrifices we made paid off.”
Many BCC students have similar stories. Edson Chipalo grew up in a village in Zambia with no electricity. Tonya Pupo dropped out of high school and raised a child; it took her three attempts to go back to school. Mary Berrio suffered a brain injury at work and but recovered to continue her education. All of them have four-year degrees or work ahead of them.
Those students will be successful because, as Warren told them, they didn’t just learn the curriculum but rather they learned how to work hard and “make something happen.”
“If you want to change something, nobody is going to give it to you. You’ve got to fight for it,” Warren said. “I wanted to be here because I believe in what you can do… If you fight amazing things can happen; amazing things will happen.”
The 2015 class was the 55th in school’s history. It features students from Connecticut, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts. The median age of a BCC student is 27, so it is more of an atypical student body. The school issued 269 associate degrees and 82 certificates.
“Today when you cross this stage and you leave these grounds, I am asking you to channel your inner Elizabeth Warren. Persist, commit, complete and use your skills to help others do the same,” BCC President Ellen Kennedy told the students. “Show the grit you share with Sen. Warren.”
The commencement included many elected officials – including the Berkshires’ entire state delegation. Several retired professors were given professor emeritus honors. Those were Christine Adams, Kathleen Gowdey and Sandra Ketcham.
At the end of the hour and a half ceremony the student procession led the students from the shed and into the lawn under a cloudless afternoon sky. There they were greeted by families and friends — many who bought flowers and balloons as gifts.
The commencement was taped for broadcast by C-SPAN and Pittsfield Community Television.