Ruth Castillo sat in the empty arena at the University of Miami’s Watsco Center an hour before her commencement ceremony, sporting a soft smile—patiently waiting to receive her college degree.
Castillo, 58, saw her struggles as a housekeeper and single mother of two daughters as typical for a Colombian immigrant.
But when Wolfson and Hialeah Campus president Joaquin G. Martinez announced her name during commencement to recognize her seven years at MDC as a symbol of the American Dream—she cried.
“When you’re enduring the challenges of reaching your goals, you can sometimes forget the impact you can make in your life and who you can become,” Castillo said. “When [Martinez] told my story in such a short amount of time, it was confirmation that all the hard work was worth it, something I sometimes forgot when I was getting by day-by-day.”
Castillo was one of more than 13,000 students to receive their associate and baccalaureate degrees during five MDC commencement ceremonies on May 4. The ceremonies were held at two locations: University of Miami’s Watsco Center and Kendall Campus’ Theodore R. Gibson Health Center.
Each ceremony featured guest speakers who delivered inspiring messages.
American Academy of Arts and Sciences President David Oxtoby at the North and Eduardo J. Padrón Campus ceremony; Florida Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Wilson at Homestead Campus ceremony; Trujillo Group, LLC. CEO Sol Trujillo at the Wolfson and Hialeah Campus ceremony; Hilton Bentley Hotel Managing Partner Julie Grimes at the Medical Campus ceremony and The Aspen Institute CEO Daniel Porterfield at the Kendall and West Campus ceremony.
Porterfield, in his commencement speech, connected with the student body by discussing his mother, a community college alumni that graduated in her late 30’s.
“Leaders like Dr. Padrón really showed the value of doing community college education at the highest level,” Porterfield said in an interview with The Reporter. “There’s a stigma associated with some community colleges in the country because some schools have very low graduation rates, or they have high debt rates for their degree. Miami Dade College is the exact opposite of that.”
This year’s ceremony marked a pivotal time in the College’s history. President Eduardo J. Padrón, who is set to retire in August after serving 25 years as president, walked his final precession during the Kendall and West Campus ceremony.
During each ceremony, guest speakers paid tribute to Padrón’s legacy. Roaring applause from the audience accompanied the guests’ kind words.
“The most exciting thing for me is to stand on the same stage with your president for his final commencement,” Porterfield said in his speech. “[He] is regarded in my field as, well, the Beyoncé of higher education. The ‘Beyoncé’ because he’s just the best. You don’t have to say anything about why, you just say Beyoncé and you know it’s the best.”
Bryan Montes, an Honors College student at Wolfson Campus studying economics, felt the imminent separation from MDC as not only bittersweet, but an opportunity to grow beyond his accomplishments.
Surrounded by friends and classmates he met in The Honors College, Montes was one of eight students during commencement, one from each campus, to receive the Board of Trustees Scholarship, a $5,000 prize. He served as the vice-president of the Financial Literacy Club and, in 2018, developed Bracelets For Commitment, a non-profit initiative dedicated to inspiring individuals to become changemakers.
“It felt good, you know, they called my name and I felt there was a thunderous roar,” Montes said. “I couldn’t stop smiling, when I got back. I received more support, and even throughout the night people were congratulating me and it feels bittersweet knowing you’re not going to see a lot of people for a long time, but it also feels good knowing the connections we made were honest and fruitful.”
For Steffany Soto, getting a college degree was a personal and political accomplishment.
Soto, 32, is a Chilean Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival student studying nursing at Medical Campus. President Donald Trump’s cancellation of the student and work visa program in 2017 forced Soto to question the state of her education.
The College, to alleviate the financial distress many DACA students face, offers in-state tuition to DREAMers via an out-of-state tuition waiver.
“The school has always supported me as a DREAMer,” Soto said. “They always helped me with my tuition, to adjust it every semester, and they’re always very inclusive to us.”
Martin Macho, a dual enrollment student at Hialeah Campus, received his associate’s degree a month before receiving a high school diploma from Mater Academy in Hialeah. He began attending MDC as a sophomore.
“It’s an exhilarating month,” Macho said. “It felt really rewarding because I worked a lot to get onto that stage, so it was definitely a really good payoff.”
Macho will study mechanical engineering at Florida International University this fall. To celebrate, he sported a dark blue tassel topper printed with the inscription—FIU Bound—on his graduation cap alongside a panther, their mascot.
“It was an interesting experience but a rewarding one to get that college experience during high school,” Macho said. “It paid off to get my associates degree from MDC.”
Staff writers Alina Halley, Alexa Hernandez and Vanessa Gimenez contributed to this report.