At the end of its third semester of operation, Gila Community College reached a significant milestone -- the graduation of its first class.
Summer Schneider became the first student to receive an Associate of Arts (AA) degree from GCC at a graduation ceremony Dec. 19. Other members of the class were Kristi Kisler and Adam Shepherd were presented with certificates at the same time for completing the Arizona General Education Curriculum (AGEC).
An AGEC certificate is awarded when a student has completed 35 hours of core classes. Once earned, it transfers as a package to any of the state's three universities.
"This is the first group to complete a degree or certificate in the three-semester history of Gila Community College," President Barbara Ganz told those attending the graduation. "(Summer Schneider) will always be remembered in this group at Gila Community College as the one who was the first to earn an associates degree at this institution."
Schneider, a 2001 Payson High School graduate, attended GCC because she was unable to go Northern Arizona University -- her first choice.
"Times were so difficult around the time of graduating from high school," she said. "Those times were pretty hard and there's a reason that I stayed back here. I went full time for two years. It was quite a heavy load, but definitely worth it. I took what I had and I made something wonderful out of it."
In remarks at the ceremony, Schneider put it another way.
"It's just more proof that when life hands you lemons, you can make lemonade," she said. "That's the reason I came here -- to make lemonade. I'm going to the University of Arizona next semester to pursue a degree in psychology and to keep my education flowing. I haven't stopped since high school and I don't plan on stopping anytime soon."
Kisler and Shepherd also spoke at the ceremony. Kisler explained that she and her son only moved to Payson two years ago.
"I'm a true believer that things happen for a reason," she told the assemblage. "My son and I lived in San Diego for 10 years and were brought back to Arizona for family reasons. Now I feel there was another reason I was brought back to Arizona -- to finish my education."
Kisler said she returned to the classroom after two decades in the corporate world.
"I am truly truly grateful that I'm having the opportunity now to go back and finish what I began 20 years ago, and I'm grateful we have people like these who are willing to give their time and effort to keep this college going."
Shepherd, a lieutenant at the Gila County Sheriff's Office, also thanked college officials for finding a way to keep the institution open following its break with Eastern Arizona College two years ago.
"There had to be a lot of meetings where you were looking at each other saying, ‘How are we going to make this work? The numbers just don't fit.' But you made it there anyway and I appreciate that," he said.
Shepherd also touched on the opportunities the college creates -- especially for young people.
"Most of you know I work for the sheriff's office and I see a lot of kids that get in a lot of trouble," Shepherd said. "The excuses I hear ad nauseam is there's nothing for them to do in Payson. Well, I think you can see from today there is something to do in Payson if you make a choice to do it. You've got a college that can give you a start on whatever else you want to complete in life."
As an example Shepherd traced his own accomplishments at GCC.
"I'll tell you what this community college did for a kid in Payson who didn't have anything to do," he said. "Before he even graduated high school, it allowed him to go to aviation ground school and get a pilot's license. It allowed him to go to EMT school and work as a paramedic. It allowed him to get a certificate in law enforcement (that led to a career) that he will be eligible to retire from next summer. It allowed him to receive an AGEC certificate today and hopefully, in a couple more months, it will allow him to graduate with an AA (degree).
"So I think we have an answer for those people who say kids in Payson have nothing to do, and it's all right here."
Ganz told the graduates that their accomplishments come with many privileges, but also carry responsibilities.
"Your responsibility includes to read and continue to learn, to participate in your community, to let your educated opinions be known, to become a role model for your children and other young people in the community, to encourage them to stay in school, to encourage them to take advantage of all educational opportunities, to encourage others to learn, to tutor those who need it, and to help support and encourage those who desire what you have -- a college education," Ganz said. "Begin shaping tomorrow in a positive way, for your sake and for the sake of others to come."
To conclude the ceremony, Ganz issued a challenge.
"I challenge you to continue your education, to indulge in the greatest adventure of your life -- lifelong learning," she said. "Yes, you have a piece of paper that's necessary to go onto a four-year school, but hopefully now you have that inner sense that there's a lot more worth learning than any college can ever give you."