Ali Luay is a refugee who settled in Erie, where he teaches computer classes. Jaclyn Davis is a savvy grandma who went back to school after a 20-year hiatus. Twenty-something Jessica Deitz takes college courses while working full time at Erie Insurance. They are as different as the sun and the moon but the same determination flows through their veins.
They are the face of the inaugural graduating class of Mercyhurst University - Booker T. Washington Campus.
Nine women and one man, pioneers in Mercyhurst’s urban education initiative begun in 2010, will graduate Saturday, May 10, as part of the McAuley College of Associate Degree Studies. They’ll join graduates from North East and West during the 1 p.m. proceedings at Liguori Fieldhouse on the North East campus.
"We clap and cheer when we see excellence on a stage or an athletic surface. I have been able to be front row for all 10 of these very unique and impressive performances,” said John Parente Jr., D.Ed., director of services for the McAuley College of Associate Degree Studies. “I cannot wait to applaud their persistence and excellence on May 10th. Every student has a different story, but they are all graduates."
The grads will be earning either an Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts degree or an Associate of Science in Business Management. Nine of the 10 held jobs while attending college, not to mention families and other responsibilities that made school a challenging proposition at best. Still they showed what grit and heart can do when given the chance. All told, their GPAs span 3.1 to 3.9, and all of them intend to pursue a four-year degree next.
“At Mercyhurst, we value the educational commitment of all our graduates,” said Phillip Belfiore, Ph.D., vice president for academic affairs. “Our graduates from the Booker T. Washington Campus embody that same commitment, but go beyond, committing to families, local community and education.”
The educational program at the Booker T. Washington Center started like so many initiatives at Mercyhurst, rooted in the university’s commitment to the mission of its founders, the Sisters of Mercy, who believed that education should be available to all students. Mercyhurst has consistently responded to the needs of the Erie region, reaching out to underserved populations like those, for instance, seeking one- and two-year career and opportunity programs, which resulted in the establishment of Mercyhurst North East.
“Mercyhurst has been successful in meeting the career training needs of students in the region for more than two decades at its North East campus,” Belfiore said. “Out of that experience came the realization that in some cases we needed to go directly to the people with the necessary supports to succeed in college. The driving idea was to bring the college experience to where people live and work. This did not require building with new bricks and mortar, but building on our partnership with the Booker T. Washington Center. That we now have 10 students graduating from this neighborhood initiative is validation of its success. That all of these students intend to pursue a four-year degree is a testament to their commitment.”
Shantel Hilliard, associate director of the Booker T. Washington Center, concurred, saying, "When we first started in 2010, the question was: is this sustainable? That we started with 10 and now have 10 graduating and 60 enrolled speaks for itself."
In addition to Luay, Davis and Deitz, the inaugural graduating class includes Jessica Geiger, Kimberly Csir, Melissa Lanagan, Sonnet McClellan, Vivian McCullum, Shanita Pacley and April Sims.