Hudson County Community College Class of 2017 Reflects the Diversity and Determination of the County's Population

May 16, 2017

May 16, 2017, Jersey City, NJ – Hudson County Community College (HCCC) will confer degrees and honor on the Class of 2017 at the College’s 40th Annual Commencement ceremonies this Thursday evening, May 18.  The event will take place at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Prudential Hall in Newark and will begin at 6:00 p.m.  The 2004 U.S. Presidential Candidate, former Chair of the Democratic National Committee and three-term Governor of Vermont, Howard Dean will deliver the keynote speech.  HCCC Vice President for Development and the Executive Director of the HCCC Foundation Joseph D. Sansone will be presented with the HCCC 2017 Heritage Award at the event.

According to HCCC President Glen Gabert, Ph.D., the College is graduating 1,129 students this year.  “Each year, we are struck by the conviction and commitment our graduates display in achieving their academic goals and this year is no exception,” Dr. Gabert said. He noted that many of the students have worked full-time, raised children, and overcome all manner of obstacles while pursuing their college studies. “We are very proud of the Class of 2017, and the families and friends who encourage and support them. These graduates are the leaders of tomorrow,” he stated.

Reyhan Lalaoui , who is just 16 years of age, is the HCCC Class of 2017 Valedictorian – the youngest ever in the College’s history.  The Guttenberg resident was homeschooled by her mother from fifth through the twelfth grade. In December 2014, she received her high school diploma, and in January 2015 – just a few days after her fourteenth birthday – she started classes at Hudson County Community College.  Reyhan served as president of the College’s Sigma Kappa Delta (Honor Society) and a member of Phi Theta Kappa (Honor Society), was responsible for beginning a reading program for the students at P.S. #22 (Reverend Dr. Ercel F. Webb School) in Jersey City, and has been working on setting up a book drive as well. This past January she was named a 2017 National YoungArts Foundation finalist in writing.

Reyhan’s father is a native of Morocco who, speaking very little English, came to the U.S. in search of a better life.  Her mother is a successful advertising writer who comes from “a long line of hard-working, blue-collar Americans.”

An English major, Reyhan plans to be a writer and filmmaker who creates material that will help young people tackle timely issues in city environments. She will complete work towards her bachelor’s degree at New York University or Saint Peter’s University.

Betsy Apena , a native of Peru who now resides in Union City, is a first-generation college student and single mother who pursued her Associate’s degree in Business Administration as a means of providing her son with a better future. She struggled to balance work, caring for her son, her studies and community work since entering HCCC in 2011. Although she petitioned for U.S. residency in 2010, her case was not accepted until 2014, and she is currently awaiting the next steps in obtaining her green card.  Although her immigration status precluded her from obtaining financial aid, she was awarded a HCCC Foundation Scholarship, which assisted her in completing her degree studies this year. “Hudson County Community College taught me that success comes with determination, hard work, and continued learning,” she states. Ms. Apena was named to the Dean’s List in 2015 and 2016; served as Treasurer of the National Society of Leadership and Success; was the President of Phi Theta Kappa and a member of Sigma Kappa Delta, a student delegate at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities 2015 conference, and a semifinalist in the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship competition. She will begin working toward a bachelor’s degree in Supply Chain Management this fall at Rutgers Business School.

Rameisha Cooper is a resident of Jersey City who actually began her college journey at Bloomfield College, but had to leave for financial reasons. The first in her family to attend college, Ms. Cooper says she did not want to attend HCCC, but it turned out that “... while attending this school, my years here have been the best. I’m happy that I chose this school.”  She will receive her A.A. Liberal Arts - Psychology degree this Thursday.

Gloria Graham is 50-plus years of age, and a veteran of the U.S. Army whose unit was an integral part of Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Ms. Graham, who is physically disabled, was an employee and a student at HCCC more than 30 years ago and admits she did not take her studies seriously at that time.  This time around, the Jersey City resident received almost all A’s in her core subjects and has remained on the Dean’s List while working towards her degree in Criminal Justice. “I have trouble remembering where I put my car keys at times, but for some reason I am able to retain the information I learned in class,” she states.

Ineisha Johnson of Jersey City began her studies at HCCC four years ago. Straight out of high school and pregnant at that time, she had been a volleyball star with dreams to pursue. Her mother, Mattie Pegues, graduated from the College in 2009 and advocated for Ineisha to pursue studies. “I was always a student before actually becoming a student, going to class with my mother every chance I was given,” she says. She will receive her A.A. Liberal Arts - Early Childhood Education degree on Thursday evening, has accepted a job with the Jersey City Board of Education, and will begin working towards a teaching degree at New Jersey City University this Fall.

Amaalah Ogburn is a Guttenberg resident who began her studies at HCCC in 2015 after experiencing three major life events – the birth of her first child, the death of her mother, and leaving an 11-year position in Human Resources to raise her son. She states that at first, she had no intention of attending college because she had not liked school some 16 years earlier. However, thinking about how things had changed since she was in school and concerned about how she might not be able to help her son with his studies, she decided to start classes at HCCC. After graduating, she will head to Rutgers Newark and work on combined Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Public Administration and Nonprofit Administration. “The best thing about beginning my college education here at HCCC is that it has given me the time and the confidence in my academic abilities that I needed before going further,” she states.

Victoria Ramirez is a single mother of two whose mantra seems to be, “Never give up!” The Jersey City resident relates that having to see her daughter through surgery, not being able to find childcare, and other personal issues originally prevented her from focusing on her studies. After failing three classes, she decided to retake them and was determined to graduate “no matter what.” She says her daughter – who is disabled – was her primary source of inspiration: “I didn’t want to disappoint her. She looks up to me and always tells me how proud she is of me. She always tells me she wants to go to school and college because of me.” Ms. Ramirez will graduate with an A.A.S. degree in Management and is deciding between Saint Peter’s University and New Jersey City University (where she has been awarded scholarships), and Montclair State and Rutgers.

James Tietcheu, a native of Cameroon, lost his parents when he was just three years of age.  He was the youngest in a family of 25 children. In 2012, he was one of 50,000 people selected from 15 million to come to the U.S. through the Diversity Visa Lottery. With just $400 in his pocket, Mr. Tietcheu landed in the U.S. to pursue “the priceless opportunity to further my education.” To overcome the language hurdle, he enrolled in the College’s ESL program. Concerned about covering the cost of tuition and fees, he worked overnight shifts and applied for and received HCCC Foundation and R&D Council of New Jersey Scholarships. In addition, while maintaining a high GPA, the Jersey City resident volunteered with the Jersey City Department of Recreation as well as Liberty Science Center and Garden State Episcopal Community Development Center; was a member of the Sigma Kappa Delta National English Honor Society; served as Vice President of the Computer Science Club and President of the Honors Student Council; and was chosen to be part of the Goldman Sachs Local College Collaborative Program. He will receive his A.S. - Computer Science degree and will further his education at the School of General Studies at Columbia University.

Jocelyn Wong-Castellano was born and raised in the U.S., but moved to her mother’s homeland – Malaysia – in 2006.  She graduated from an international high school in that country in 2012, moved back to the States in June 2013, and applied to and was accepted at both Bergen Community College and Hudson County Community College. Ms. Wong-Castellano decided to attend HCCC as it was “convenient and affordable.” Before the Fall semester began, her grandfather passed away and without the support of family or friends here, her studies suffered.  She credits one of her professors and her classmates for helping her find her way: “I knew at that moment that there were people willing to help you in anything you need.” She has since gone on to become a HCCC Peer Leader and earned her A.A. Liberal Arts - Criminal Justice degree. She will attend Rutgers-Newark, and plans to pursue a career within the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Jonathan Zhagui graduated from Union City High School in the top 11% of his class, and became a recipient of a New Jersey Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship (NJ STARS), a program that fully funds full-time students’ tuition at one of the State’s 19 community colleges. He credits his mother, a HCCC graduate, for guiding him to and through HCCC. Mr. Zhagui states that networking proved to be an important aspect of his education and netted him three jobs that worked with his class schedule. For the past two semesters, he has been a Peer Leader and has met students from all backgrounds, including those who were pursuing the A.A. Liberal Arts - Criminal Justice degree he will be awarded.  Last year, he took the New Jersey Law Enforcement Exam and scored 98.75. This Fall, he will attend New Jersey City University, where he will major in National Security Studies on a fully funded Presidential Scholarship.