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Donnelly graduates make their own sunshine

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Cold, rainy, and dark was the weather outside the Jack Reardon Civic Center here on May 15.

Inside, however, it was warm, joyous, and bright.

Even Mother Nature at her most dreary couldn’t deter the 2010 graduates of Donnelly College.

This graduating class was a group of achievers and over-comers. They were used to making their own sunshine.

The 49 graduates (31 associate and 18 bachelor degrees) were all dressed in white and black satin graduation robes, while their proud and excited family members filled the chairs behind them. Cameras flashed constantly. Some in the audience carried shiny balloons.

Donnelly was established in 1949 as an independent, coeducational, Catholic community college. It was founded by the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison and is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

Its original mission was to serve the children of working-class Catholic immigrants who didn’t have much money or opportunities for a college education.

The heady years of the post-World War II boom are now history. The families of Irish and Eastern European working class have largely yielded to a richly diverse college community of African-American (41 percent), Hispanic (32 percent), and largely non-European immigrant families (10 percent).

Of the total enrollment, 78 percent of students have annual family income levels below $33,000, and 92 percent receive some financial aid.

“I think the component that really makes the college special is the fact that the archdiocese has served as our sponsor and has ensured that we stayed available to students in the urban core,” said Donnelly president Steven LaNasa, in an interview after the event.

“Secondly, [what is special about Donnelly is] that we’ve held true to that original mission from 1949 to serve students that would otherwise go unserved,” he said. “There just aren’t that many private institutions that focus on serving low-income students and keep tuition as low as we do.”

But the mission to bring a college education within the grasp of the working class of Wyandotte County has continued, as demonstrated by class co-representative Tabitha Carter, graduating with an associate’s degree in science.

“After graduating from high school, I could not wait to begin college,” said Carter, in her address. “My dream was to be the first of my family to graduate from college, to get a degree that would allow me to provide for myself and my family.”

Carter started off at a large university, but struggled to pay for her education. She began to lose hope in her dream and left that university after one semester. That’s when she decided to give Donnelly a try.

Carter started off with some misgivings, but those quickly dissipated when she hit the classroom. There she discovered a faculty and staff that were simply “amazing.”

“I would like to thank the entire academic community for walking in front of us, guiding us in the right direction, and going above and beyond to make sure we achieved academic understanding and success,” said Carter.

The second class co-representative was part of that 10 percent of international students who have found Donnelly to be their golden ticket to the American Dream.

“I started this journey almost four years ago from Bolivia, my home,” said Paola Zapata-Arce, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in applied science.

“It has been a long way from that first day,” she continued. “It has been a long way from when I said goodbye to my parents and hello to these new adventures. When I started this journey, I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it. But my faculty, friends and Donnelly College have made all these achievements possible.”

She arrived at Donnelly full of doubts and fears — and with a thick Bolivian accent. She couldn’t stop crying that first day. But before it ended, she had lots of new friends — and two new Bolivian “mothers.”

“They will find a way to make your dream [get] accomplished,” said Zapata- Arce.

All graduations are special, and the class of 2010 was no exception, said Donnelly’s president.

“I think one of the things that really leapt out at me was the fact that six members of the class, including one baccalaureate candidate, started in our English as a Second Language program,” LaNasa said. “That’s one of the highest numbers in recent years . . . to transfer into the degree program.”

In her commencement address, Mary Lou Jaramillo talked about their accomplishments to date and of the future.

“Your family, our community, this region, America, the world needs you for your talent and gifts to humanity and our environment,” said Jaramillo, president and CEO of El Centro, Inc., of Kansas City, Kan.

“Life and learning are a journey, like a road trip. You have a destination, or goals,” she continued. “You have a road map or plans on how to get to your des- tination. The journey is likely to have surprises, opportunity, detours, delays, roadblocks and challenges.”

“Enjoy and celebrate the accomplishments and learn from the challenges,” she said, “and even the failures.”

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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