Inspire. Connect. Challenge. Innovate. Empower. Explore. Create. Dream. Navigate. Overcome. Persist. Focus.
Those 12 words were chosen by recent Lorain County Community College (LCCC) Class of 2023 graduates when asked to summarize their journey at the school.
The words represent the opportunities — and successes — the students have experienced over the course of their education. So it is fitting that the meaningful words play an integral part in Unlocking Opportunity, both the theme of this year’s commencement and the 200-foot-long outdoor art installation in front of Bass Library on the LCCC campus.
The theme is part of an initiative by The Aspen Institute and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teacher College. Ten community colleges were selected to be part of a national network with a goal to see every student graduate with high-quality workforce credentials. Data supports the real-world benefits of a higher education degree in improving economic mobility, according to LCCC.
How the Unlocking Opportunity theme is specifically used is generally decided by each of the participating institutions of higher learning. LCCC wasn’t shy about embracing the idea. Big, bold and beautiful have described the community college’s outdoor art installations in the past. And this year’s creation is no exception.
“In 2020 because of COVID, we couldn’t have a commencement, so that year was really the start of it all,” says project designer Jim Gundlach, manager, creative services, marketing and communications. “We needed something to say who we were and to celebrate the students. We installed 47,000 flags in the shape of a graduation cap with the tassel made with 2,185 yellow flags honoring that year’s graduates. Then everyone said we had to do something else the next year.”
Gundlach, who has an impressive background in public and community art, also created SOAR last year, an installation that featured 2,022 kinetic birds which symbolized students’ upward pathways to success.
This year, Unlocking Opportunity is made up of polyvinyl posts reenforced with wood, 26 30-foot-long ribbon banners imprinted with the selected words and 24 smaller triangular ones featuring the theme’s logo. Scanning each icon on top of a pole activates animation.
“Through augmented reality on your phone, the top of the pole will appear to come alive. One is a bird icon for the chosen word ‘empower.’ The icon appears to peel off the top, fly around a little bit and then go back down. Other icons include a stylized staircase to represent ‘persist,’ a door for ‘explore,’ and a bridge for ‘connect,’” says Gundlach. “It’s really a lot of fun. The animation lasts about 10 seconds.”
Even without the tech magic, the installation is impressive. The banners are made from a mesh material that somewhat changes appearance depending upon sunlight and shadows, according to Gundlach. The installation can be seen from Abbe Road and is illuminated at night with close to 50 solar lights and 8 multi-color flood lights.
“A lot of different people helped put this together, including an engineer here who helped with some of those challenges, plus the Facilities (crew) who helped move poles, put mulch down and makes sure everything looks nice. And, of course, it is for the students and the community,” says Gundlach.
Volunteers from across campus and members of the Commencement Committee also lent a hand.
“We try to do these things on a large sale because they represent the big impact we have throughout the community. Our hope is that as people are driving down Abbe Road, they pull onto campus to experience the display up close,” says Alison Musser, LCCC’s director of marketing and communications. “When graduates are there, we want them to find the word that most resonates with their own journey, recognize how LCCC is part of that journey, and understand how they can make a difference coming back to the community. It also makes a nice photo opportunity for graduates, their families and friends.”
LCCC has a designated storage room for all re-useable items and materials used in each year’s installation. Some items are recycled, others repurposed. That saves time, cost and cuts down on waste.
The themed graduation installations remain on display from late spring to early fall each year and are built to withstand the weather. This spring, Gundlach and LCCC already began brainstorming over ideas for the Class of 2024’s art installation. He’s not saying, but promises it is “a special installation for a special year.”
Amanda Rooney unearthed her long-term career goal while serving in the United States Air Force. After four years of service, she turned to Lorain County Community College (LCCC) to achieve that goal.
Rooney joined the Air Force to help pay for college after graduating from North Ridgeville High School in 2011. The senior airman spent her four years stationed in Fort Gordon, GA, working as an intelligence analyst. She says it was a very intense and strenuous job, but also pretty cool.
“I worked a lot with the NSA,” is all she says.
The National Security Agency provides foreign signals intelligence to the nation’s policymakers and military forces. When she wasn’t tied up with top-secret intel, Rooney spearheaded an inner-city education program for active-duty military members. It began with one gym class and from there, more courses were added including math and reading.
“It evolved and just took off,” Rooney says. “And I realized, I’m pretty good at this.”
In 2016, Rooney returned home and a few years later — after starting a family and after her husband earned his associate degree from LCCC — followed her passion for education. Her first stop was LCCC’s Veterans and Military Services office, which acts as a liaison with the Veterans Administration to certify enrollment for students using the GI Bill or Vocational Rehabilitation benefits.
Beyond the academic assistance, Rooney found a sense of community within the office and a way to apply her passion for education. She served on a panel that helped LCCC academic advisors better understand how to talk to veterans about their GI Bill or benefits. She’s also the event coordinator for LCCC’s Veterans Club, hosting bake sales and lunches with local veterans.
“I got involved to make friends and connections on campus,” Rooney says. “Being part of the Veterans Club has allowed me to meet new people, especially since most of my classes are online.”
As Rooney began working toward her associate of arts degree, with plans to transfer into Ashland University’s Bachelor of Science in Education through the University Partnership, she says LCCC’s flexibility and student services helped her balance a busy life. The mother of two enrolled her children in LCCC’s Children’s Learning Center, which is a model early childhood program for children 18 months to 12 years old. Having her children nearby on campus was comforting
“With my son at the Children’s Learning Center I could have dedicated study time,” she says. “The teachers there also caught my son’s speech delay, and we were able to get him in speech therapy, which has been a great benefit.”
Rooney is also a Girl Scout leader to a Daisy troop of 16 girls, part of the Early Childhood Learning Center PTA in North Ridgeville and a girls’ soccer coach. Beyond allowing time for everything and everyone that’s important to her, Rooney says she started using her classroom learning in her personal life almost immediately.
“I have been able to apply the philosophies I learned in my Intro to Teaching class to teaching my children at home, as well as with my Girl Scout troop,” Rooney says. “The class has inspired me think of how I want to teach the young children that I have an impact on.”
As Rooney graduates from LCCC and begins her University Partnership journey, she says LCCC’s student-focused approach has made reaching the goal that emerged years ago possible.
“LCCC has a lot to offer,” Rooney adds. “From the clubs to the Children’s Learning Center to the writing clinic to the fitness center, there are so many resources that can help students succeed in different aspects of their lives.”
Kaleb Cook says Lorain County Community College (LCCC) gave him the opportunity to challenge himself academically — before he got to high school. Cook began taking LCCC classes through College Credit Plus while in middle school and says the coursework was demanding but well worth it.
“It was a challenge adapting to heavier workloads and higher academic standards of college coursework,” Cook says. “But I focused on my coursework and used my determination to see it through.”
Now Cook, 18, is graduating from high school and LCCC with both an associate of science and an associate of arts. And the credits he’s accumulated since middle school are giving him a hefty head start as he transfers to the University of Dayton to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
“I want to explore different areas of mechanical engineering to help me find my place,” Cook said. “I do know that I want to use the skills that I have and will earn to benefit the world and help improve people’s lives.”
As Cook explores future career goals, he’s reaching many others along the way, while positively impacting those in his community. The Amherst native recently earned his Black Belt in Judo and is an Ohio Archers State Field Champion. He’s also an Eagle Scout, and for his Eagle Project in 2019 Cook designed and built a handicap accessible deck overlooking the Black River in the Black River Reservation.
“The project helps keep park goers safe while allowing them to enjoy the view,” Cook says. “I’m going into engineering, so knowing how to design, plan,and construct huge projects and then leading a group of people in achieving a finished result is essential.”
Cook says none of those opportunities outside the classroom would have been possible without the flexibility and affordability LCCC provides.
“LCCC gave me the opportunity to prepare for attending a four-year college and to earn college credit that would help me work toward my goals.”
Bianca Young never saw herself becoming a nurse. It was a dream job when she was young, but the 35-year-old had pursued other ambitions in adulthood. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and had built a rewarding career in the field. Still, when Young was presented with an opportunity to chase her childhood dream, she heard one voice in her head..
“My mom always says, ‘Nothing beats a failure but a try,’” Young says. “I decided to go for it.”
Young had recently moved from Texas to Oberlin and, being just a few hours shy of earning a master’s degree in sociology, attended a college fair to continue her education. When she arrived, she says the room was filled with nursing schools — nothing else. She took it as a sign and, after some research, chose Lorain County Community College (LCCC).
“I picked LCCC because I felt like it would cater to my education,” she says. “The professors were invested in my education and wanted me to succeed.”
LCCC’s Associate Degree in Nursing program, which Young says caters to working students like her, exceeded her expectations. Her favorite classes were held in the Health Simulation Center at LCCC’s University Partnership Ridge Campus.
“The simulations prepared us for what things are going to be like in real-life situations,” Young says. “In class we’re reading, talking and discussing. It’s different putting those discussions into action.”
Young also experienced several hospital environments as part of the college’s clinical rotations. The exposure helped Young narrow her specialty to becoming an Intensive Care Unit nurse. Eventually she’d like to be a nurse anesthetist.
“I hope my patients say I’m somebody who speaks up for them when they’re not being heard,” Young says. “That I advocate for them, push for answers for them and communicate well.”
This mindset — stemming from her past career — set Young apart when LCCC instructors made their Florence Nightingale award nominations during the December 2022 graduation ceremony. Young was the main campus award winner, and Nanci Berman, DNP, RN, the LCCC nursing instructor who nominated Young, described her as “quiet but mighty.”
“She has been the advocate for so many in her previous role,” Berman says. “And now she’ll have the capability to serve those in her care as a nurse with a different mindset than most nurses.”