College Holds 55th Commencement Exercises

Student Government Association President Tiye' Smith stressed to her classmates how proud she was of them in her commencement speech at Virginia Peninsula Community College’s graduation ceremony May 14 at Hampton Coliseum.

“I’m sure for many of us, the road to completion was paved with obstacles, but we can feel triumphant we finally completed our higher education,” she said, noting many of the graduates overcame self-doubt and financial obstacles while enduring sleepless nights and uncertain days. “So many things could have kept you from this moment, and yet you’ve made it to the day in which you can celebrate all of your academic achievements. If no one has told you they’re proud of you today, please know that I am so very proud of you.”

Smith’s faith and mother, a 27-year Air Force veteran, helped her through the rough patches.

“Mom, you were my first teacher. You were the one who introduced me to the power of education, who encouraged me to take my art and my life more seriously and chase the dreams I felt called to,” she said. “You’ve kept me grounded and energized throughout this experience, and I want to dedicate my degree to you.”

She told the graduates their accomplishments deserve to be celebrated “with friends, a loved one, or even by yourself.” But she wanted them to celebrate the person they have become.

“You deserve to revel in your accomplishments, and you've been through so much to get to this point,” she said.

She hopes there are more celebrations to come.

“Remember to always strive for more excellence, more knowledge, and never limit yourself when setting goals, no matter how extravagant they are,” she said.

VPCC President Dr. Towuanna Porter Brannon offered three pieces of advice to the graduates.

The first was to leverage their unique experiences.

“As graduates of Virginia Peninsula Community College, you have benefited from a diverse, inclusive environment that has prepared you to thrive in a world that values collaboration and multiple perspectives. Use these experiences to build bridges in all the spaces that you will enter in the future,” she said.

Second was to commit to lifelong learning by remaining curious and to keep developing to further their careers as well as making meaningful contributions to society.

Lastly, she told them to be bold.

“Our community needs good people to shape a brighter future,” she said. “I encourage you to embrace opportunities that stretch your capabilities and push you toward innovation. Don’t ever underestimate the power that you have to accomplish great things, and to lead and inspire those around you.”

The College presented its Dana B. Hamel Award to two recipients – Dr. Harold Marioneaux Jr. and the What’s Next for Success Foundation. Named for the first chancellor of Virginia’s Community Colleges (VCCS), the award acknowledges individuals or entities for their outstanding public service, fostering access to higher education, and promoting an understanding of workforce development’s role as an essential part of the College’s mission.

A dentist, educator and entrepreneur, Marioneaux was the first director of VPCC’s Dental Hygiene program when it began in 2009. He also taught at Old Dominion University and directed prestigious science programs at Norfolk State University and Hampton University. Marioneaux is committed to philanthropy and holds degrees from Hampton University, Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry, and Old Dominion University.

In a pre-recorded video, Marioneaux said life was a journey and the journey often offers the most profound lessons and unlimited growth.

John R. Eley III and Dr. Ashby Kilgore co-founded What’s Next, a program that uses grants to offer free trades classes at VPCC. More than 300 students have participated in the program, which was founded in 2021.

Eley is a lifelong resident of Newport News and was elected to the Newport News City Council in 2022. He is a Menchville High School graduate, business owner, and former Newport News School Board member. He also volunteers for many community service endeavors. Eley also was awarded an honorary degree by the College.

Kilgore has spent more than 45 years in public education as a teacher, principal and deputy superintendent. She was appointed superintendent of Newport News Public Schools in 2007, becoming the first woman to serve in the role. She was named an Old Dominion University Darden College of Education Fellow in 2012 and serves on the boards of the Virginia Community College System and the Virginia Living Museum.

Participating in the community is key, noted Kilgore, also in a video message to the graduates.

“Become a builder. Be a builder of your career. Be a builder of your family and be a builder of your community,” she said.

Dr. David Dore, VCCS chancellor, also mentioned community involvement in his message to all graduates of the 23 institutions in the system.

“Each of you has the potential to change lives for the better,” he said. “So, I ask you to go out into your communities and serve your communities. Find the beauty and greatness in those around you and help others follow their dreams and achieve their goals just as you have.”

The College also recognized two students for their academic success. Jude Meadows earned the President’s Award, and Lindsay Swanson the Vice President’s Award, the two most prestigious awards the College provides students. The awards honor exceptional academic performance. Criteria include a high cumulative grade point average, completing at least 60 semester hours of course work and receiving an associate degree.

Coincidentally, both are from Williamsburg and earned an associate degree in social science. Meadows will be attending Virginia Tech in the fall to pursue a degree in political science. Swanson started at Virginia Commonwealth University in January and is working toward a bachelor’s in psychology.

The College conferred an associate degree, certificate, career studies certificate or Workforce credential to 1,097 students, with more than 400 of them walking across the stage.