The College of Southern Maryland celebrated 466 candidates for 480 associate degrees and 271 certificates during its 62nd Spring Commencement Ceremony held May 14.

The 2021 graduating class earned several exceptional characteristics, including having spent their last academic year participating in distance learning with limited in-person instruction.

“Students gathered here at graduation today navigated a global pandemic, along with the rest of the world, that turned our lives upside down,” CSM President Maureen Murphy said in a news release. “Many of us felt the impact the pandemic has had on mental health and finances. Members of our community experienced food and housing insecurity, perhaps for the first time. Students, amid all this, you dealt with an emotionally charged environment around race relations and politics.”

Of the students that were celebrated, 171 were from Charles County, 157 from St. Mary’s County, 108 are from Calvert County and 30 from outside of the region. Nearly 72% of the graduates are women and 26% graduated with honors.

The majority of degrees were in the field of arts and sciences, nursing, business administration, social sciences and criminal justice.

General study transfers, accounting and business management are the primary certificates awarded. The oldest graduate was 70 years young and the youngest was 17 years old.

The virtual ceremony was marked with pre-recorded speeches, video salutes from professors, 2021 graduate and Waldorf resident Domonique Rinaldi’s mesmerizing rendition of the national anthem, photos and quotes along with a webpage filled with well-wishes from elected officials at the local, regional, state and federal levels.

Nineteen-year-old Cornelius Hightower III of Waldorf served as student speaker despite a year of significant challenges and great loss. The mechanical engineering major is the only male among his seven siblings – most of whom have attended or graduated from CSM – and all of whom lost both their father and grandmother to the COVID-19 virus in the fall.

“In this last year – during a global pandemic – I, and many of you, faced enormous pain in our lives,” said Hightower, who thanked advisor and Pre-Engineer Coordinator Jehnell Linkins for sending him daily motivational texts during his period of grieving. “Last fall, during my third semester at CSM, my life changed in two weeks. And in those instances, my drive for school was lost.”

The St. Charles High School graduate will attend the University of Maryland A. James Clark School of Engineering to get his bachelor’s degree and receive experience and networking opportunities at Patuxent River Naval Air Station through a partnership between Clark School of Engineering, NAVAIR and CSM.

Hightower told his class to value ‘you the process’ more than ‘you the product.’

“There is no point thinking about the destination if you cannot realize the path to get there,” he said. “This has been an amazing journey, but somehow I know the best is yet to come.”

CSM’s Interim Vice President of Academic Affairs Rodney Redmond has worked in higher education for more than 25 years and joined CSM five months ago.

“I have no doubt that your families and friends share the same sense of pride we are all feeling today,” he said. “You followed through in your pursuit of knowledge and in your pursuit of perfecting an area of expertise. Whether you’re a senior manager or an entry-level employee on the front lines, a working parent or in the trades, you have grown your career and professional goals. And more than that, you have grown personally. We all know they’ll be more storms. And now we know not only will we survive them, we can thrive from them.”

CSM Senate Faculty President Dr. Sarah Merranko attended her 36th commencement at CSM.

“Thirty-six times, I have watched graduates march down the aisle as graduation candidates and walk back out as graduates,” she said of the twice-yearly events. “It never gets old. It never ceases to bring tears to my eyes. And it never fails to remind me of what it all means.”

Quoting her favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, Merranko reminded the graduates to be patient on their journey.

“Ask the questions and pay attention to the human you are becoming,” she offered. “Be patient if you don’t have all the answers right now because learning about ourselves is a process, not a final destination.”

CSM Associate Vice President of Strategic Initiatives James Finger earned the distinction of being the oldest graduate in the CSM class of 2021. The 70-year-old, whose career at CSM spans 17 years, started taking classes one at a time more than 10 years ago.

The Accokeek resident holds a bachelor’s degree and a master of business administration degree and earned his associate of arts degree in arts and science, but offered that his latest degree – and grades – didn’t matter as much as did the experience of learning.

“I did end up with a 4.0 GPA. which I never attained in my previous academic life,” he said. “You are never too old to learn something new and you never know how transformative that the journey can be to one’s spirit.”

Eighteen-year-old Josephine Orie of Huntingtown and 17-year-old Elizabeth Campbell of Bryantown were among the youngest in the class of 2021 to graduate.

The homeschoolers earned high school credits at CSM in conjunction with their college credits and both have earned their diplomas and degrees, concurrently.

“I definitely felt like it was harder to learn remotely,” said Orie, who plans to attend Virginia Tech University. “I had more trouble focusing on classes when I was at home rather than actually being on campus, and my grades took a bit of a hit this past year. I will be happy to start in-person classes again soon.”

“I have been involved in the performing arts since I was seven years old, so it was very weird to suddenly have all that stripped away last March,” said Campbell, who will attend Regent University in Virginia Beach where she will be working toward a fine arts degree with a double major in theater and acting. “However, I am thankful for the opportunities I did have because of the pandemic. It was a blessing in disguise to be able to learn to perform on Zoom while still in college as that is a skill that will most likely be used in the arts for years to come. Aside from school, the pandemic made certain friendships stronger than they probably would have been and it strengthened my faith.

Charles County resident Karen Gross said she remembers reading the stories in local newspapers at each semester’s end about the various College of Southern Maryland graduates who went to college to transition their careers, but she never thought she’d be among the students who shared their personal story.

“I used to read about the youngest graduate, and oldest graduate and other stories about people of all ages overcoming adversity or making changes,” she said. “They inspired me.”

Today, the 59-year-old, 14-year military veteran was a participant in the college’s 62nd Spring Commencement and moved her tassel in a virtual graduation event to signify her earning an associate of science degree in nursing.

Gross came to Maryland from New York by way of the Navy after being stationed at the Washington Navy Yard. She and her family made Charles County their home where she raised her three children after she was honorably discharged.

“For years, I was a stay-at-home mom, and I only took jobs that allowed me to be home and primarily be a parent because we didn’t have family to help us in the area,” she said.

In 2015, Gross decided to attend the college with the intent of applying for the nursing program, but thought at that time she was ‘too old,’ she enrolled in the Health Information Management (HIM) program instead.

While in the midst of her program, in 2017, she attended her daughter’s graduation from nursing school in North Carolina from where her daughter went on to become an ICU nurse.

“My mom is a retired nurse,” she explained of the family tradition. “When I was little, I used to watch her put on her white uniform from head to toe: Everything – the white cap, the white shoes. I have always had that picture of her in my head.”

After receiving her HIM degree, Gross petitioned to the CSM nursing program in 2018 and now affirms the adages that “timing is everything” and “all things happen for a reason.”

“This season in my life helped put me here, right now, with the best people in my corner,” Gross said. “In the course of the past two years, I’ve gotten divorced. I had to move recently. There was a pandemic and I was in nursing school all at the same time. I have met some of the best people right here at CSM. A few of my professors and advisors that I have had over the years, and my fellow classmates – they are some of the best young people I’ve ever been around — I wouldn’t have made it without them.”

Gross has already spoken with a recruiter and isn’t sure yet what the future holds, but she said she hopes to pursue a career in oncology or women’s health.

“It took me a while to come down from the stress of classes and final exams being over, and really take a breath and realize everything we have accomplished together,” she said. “It is such a great feeling. I did it. I actually did it. I do not allow age to be a determining factor anymore. And I want to encourage others who think that they are too old, that they too can make a change.”

To see the full list of graduates, go to www.csmd.edu/news/2021/csm-announces-2021-spring-commencement-candidates-for-graduation.html, or to read more stories about CSM’s graduates and read letters of congratulations from state and local politicians, as well as CSM leadership, go to www.csmd.edu/csmgrad2021/.