Hudson County Community College Class of 2018 Success Stories Include Veterans, Career Changers, Immigrants, Senior Citizens, and Many Others

May 14, 2018

The College will graduate 1,138 students this Thursday, May 17; ‘Hamilton’ Star Christopher Jackson will deliver the keynote speech.


May 14, 2018 / Jersey City, NJ – Hudson County Community College (HCCC) will hold its 41st Annual Commencement on Thursday, May 17, at 6 p.m. at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Christopher Jackson, who played the role of President George Washington in the Broadway hit, “Hamilton,” will deliver the keynote speech to graduates and their families and friends.

Members of the HCCC Class of 2018 are inspirations as so many of them overcame obstacles, and persevered and succeeded in attaining their educational goals and bettering their lives and the lives of their families.

Here are just a few of the success stories from the Class of 2018, showing how students took ownership of their futures:

Jamie Bahr of North Bergen was not thinking about college before she enrolled at HCCC. The former high school dropout was encouraged by her stepmother to join the Army National Guard program, paving the way to her high school diploma. After graduating from Basic Training, she was stationed at Army National Guard Patriot Academy in Indiana. The college-inspired atmosphere featured dorm rooms, offices, a library, and gym. While there, she took online courses needed to complete her high school diploma. Eleven months later Jamie returned home, worked, and while attending monthly drills planned her next step. She recalled the Patriot Academy teachers instilling the importance of education as a core value — inspiring her to enroll at HCCC and major in Education. Three years later, Jamie is graduating with an impressive GPA and a bright future.

Cledys Diaz is a Salvadorian immigrant whose dream of being the first in her family to earn a college degree in the United States is coming to fruition. Four years ago, the Union City resident enrolled at HCCC while she worked in a fast food restaurant. She went from struggling with English to earning an Associate’s degree in English. The Coca-Cola Academic Team Bronze Scholar recipient will use her scholarship award towards a Bachelor’s degree in Communications and Media Arts at Columbia University. A global advocate for education and compassion through volunteerism, Cledys volunteers for Friends of Liberty State Park, Community FoodBank of New Jersey, and CatDog refuge in El Salvador. She also sponsors an elementary school in El Salvador. Cledys is a member of Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society, and National Society of Leadership and Success.

Sonnya Farino of West New York is an immigrant who embraced the diverse campus at HCCC and its liberal arts programs. “Being an HCCC student has been really exciting, especially knowing people from different countries and cultures, which has been the most incredible part of this long way,” Sonnya said. Since arriving in the United States in 2014 at age 17 without her parents, she focused on academic achievement. In 2015, Sonnya began taking ESL classes, which she says was the most frustrating part of her academic path as she was anxious to start working on her major courses. Her hard work paid off and Sonnya will graduate with a degree in Liberal Arts - Business.

Gloria Graham of Jersey City overcame physical limitations in her quest to attain a college degree. Many years ago, she studied Secretarial Science while working at the College. After her time in the United States Army, she returned to the College through the Veterans’ Reserve Educational Assistance Program (VREAP). Gloria had worked as a paralegal, and wanted to take her education to the next level. Although severe arthritis and chronic back pain had kept her out of the classroom, she took online classes and put off double knee surgery to focus on her education. She maintained grades that kept her on the Dean's List, earning top grades in her core subjects. On the verge of turning 60, Gloria plans to attend graduation even if she has to walk using a cane. She is thankful that her faith, therapy, and persistence helped her achieve her educational goals.

Rene Hewitt embodies the entrepreneurial spirit that drives successful individuals who embark on new careers. He worked in management for the entertainment, finance, and publishing industries before being laid off. Under a Department of Labor initiative, the 67-year-old business professional was able to attend HCCC and focus on his passion. “I chose to study something I love – cooking – and worked to attain my AAS in Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management,” Rene said. He is a food recipe home tester for America’s Test Kitchen as well as McCormick Spices. He is also writing “In the Kitchen with Chef Rene Hewitt: The Mini Cookbook,” which is part of a series starting with 10 recipes and photos. Best of all, Rene received a $20,000 scholarship from Phi Theta Kappa and is attending Fairleigh Dickinson University. Rene has a 4.0 GPA and is also a member of Sigma Delta Kappa honor society. Rene participated in the FDU fundraiser Gala (Food Action Station) at the Madison, NJ campus. He is the Vice President of Leadership, Beta Alpha Phi Chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society.

David A. Houghton of Jersey City exemplifies consistency, hard work, and leadership. He graduated from the New Jersey Department of Corrections in 2017 and was working full time while studying Criminal Justice-Liberal Arts at HCCC. Born and raised in Jersey City, David has a family history with the College. His aunt Stephanie Daniels and sister Charity Houghton are HCCC alumni. David is currently a College Student Success Mentor. During his time at the College he worked for the student newspaper, “The Orator”. He was also EOF Summer Program Peer Leader, Student Government Association Senator, and National Society of Leadership and Success Executive Board Member – Success Networking Team Coordinator. David is also a member of the National Society of Leadership & Success.

Thomas Jennerich was a 38-year-old sales and customer service professional with 20 years of experience when he began re-examining his life and decided to enroll at HCCC. “Before my first semester, I can remember how daunting this new endeavor felt. I was unsure if I would be able to balance work, school, and marriage. However, not attending and finishing college had been a regret for a long time,” Thomas said. The West New York resident had enrolled in the Environmental Studies program, at the urging of his wife. He achieved a 4.0 GPA during his first two semesters, earning Dean's List recognition and memberships to Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society, Sigma Kappa Delta English Honor Society, and the National Society of Leadership and Success. Excellent grades and community service earned him the New Jersey Freeholders Scholarship as well as the Coca-Cola Future Leaders Scholarship. Thomas is transferring into the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers-New Brunswick where he will use his Phi Theta Kappa Transfer Scholarship. He plans to pursue a career in environmental protection.

Mario Martinez is a retired IBM software engineer, career changer, and Computer Science major. His is a senior citizen success and a family-affair story at the College. Mario is 67. His daughter, Joanne Rogers graduated 5-6 years ago. His granddaughter, Kelsi Reyes graduated in 2014, majoring in Liberal Arts. Granddaughter Felicia Martinez is graduating from North Hudson College this year. “Coming to Hudson has enriched my life,” Mario said. “It gave me the opportunity to learn and succeed. From the beginning, I was taken as a serious student in spite of my age.” He wants to continue his studies and earn a Bachelor of Science – and perhaps a Master’s - degree. The Jersey City resident is member of Phi Theta Kappa and Sigma Delta Kappa honor societies, as well as the National Society of Leadership and Business. He is also a soccer coach and encourages the youth he works with to pursue a college education.

Sarah Nesheiwat of Bayonne says she was nervous when she began her studies at HCCC, but overcame her fears as she progressed and became accustomed to the pace of college life and meeting new people. She was active in EOF when she started at HCCC, but had to stop as she was falling behind in her studies. An Elementary/Secondary Education major, Sarah has been working as an office assistant for the College’s Academic Foundations Math Department. She states that she looks forward to a new chapter in her life, thanks to HCCC. Sarah’s mother graduated from HCCC in 2009.

Deborah Payton overcame major physical difficulties when she decided to go back to school after 44 years. At age 62, she had several health issues, including arthritis, COPD, obesity, and sciatica. During her time at HCCC, Deborah experienced instances where she could barely walk without a cane and also needed an oxygen tank. Her teachers and classmates helped accommodate her, and Deborah refused to quit. Slowly, her health improved. Not only is she earning a Liberal Arts degree, but she also lost 111 pounds. She plans on continuing her education and studying Business Management at New Jersey City University. “I am truly going to miss Hudson County Community College. It was my beginning, but I will definitely not let it be my end,” she said.

Annette Siciliano majored in Human Services, and is pursuing a second career. Annette is 57, and all her children are grown. Now it’s time for this empty nester to shine.

Janai Vazquez of North Bergen is a musician who immigrated to the U.S. in 2013 and enrolled at HCCC to learn English in 2015. Although Janai wanted to study music, the violinist needed to take ESL classes prior to General Education Requirements, which the college-level courses needed for the degree. Success came in the form of making the Dean’s List, and being inducted in the National Society of Leadership & Success. Janai could not have done it without the support from educators at HCCC. “Being a part of this College has been amazing. I got to learn, understand and speak English correctly. It was not always easy but with determination, I did all my work and made it to graduation,” said Vazquez, who will transfer to a university to study music.

Patricia Wilson is a mother of four who returned to college in her later years to major in Health Services and launch a second career. Her daughter Antionette Wilson graduated from HCCC in the Nursing program, and now works as a Director of Nursing. Her son Michael Francis graduated HCCC last year and is currently at Rutgers studying Business. Patricia’s two other children are attending other colleges. Patricia proves that it’s never too late to make new educational goals. “HCCC is a family affair. I am proud of what I have accomplished, and I am always encouraging others to do so, no matter what age they are,” she said. Ms. Wilson is a C4 member of Phi Theta Kappa honor society.