Tyler Junior College President Mike Metke likes to call TJC a college of opportunity, and that’s reflected in the lives of the more than 1,100 students graduating in May.
Even with a record spring enrollment of more than 11,400 students, Metke said the school’s true mark of success is the change made in students’ lives.
“Commencement is the beginning in so many ways,” Metke said. “This will impact their lives and families for generations that they can’t foresee.”
Students walked the stage in three separate, packed graduation ceremonies Friday at Wagstaff Gymnasium.
For biology major Gavin Downing, commencement is the beginning of his path toward medical school.
He said he began TJC two years ago feeling like he had no voice, that he was subpar. That all changed with encouragement of his professors.
“I found that I have a very strong urge to help people. I have a huge devotion for public service,” Downing said. “The biggest moment in that journey was when I realized that I had the ability to do something.”
Downing said his professors pushed him to form his own opinions and stand his ground. That newfound resolve led him to take the state championship in debate two years in a row.
“High school is not the peak moment,” he said. “College is where you learn to develop your passions, go out and conquer the world.”
Downing will be heading to The University of Texas at Tyler to continue his education, like many other TJC graduates.
Elizabeth Lenz also plans to earn her bachelor’s of fine arts at UT Tyler, which is quite the feat for a student who is graduating with an associate’s degree and beginning her bachelor’s degree at 16 years old.
Lenz is the youngest person to walk the stage this spring.
“Elizabeth doesn’t have a stopping point; she wants her (bachelor’s) by 18,” her mother, Sherrill, said.
Miss Lenz began taking classes online at 15 and eased herself into the full classroom setting. By the time she hit campus, she was comfortable with the workload and able to stretch her artistic aspirations.
Recently she has shifted from drawings to paintings. One of her favorite pieces is a 3-D matte fixative painting of a dragon. Another piece has allowed her to explore what it means to be an adult and have opinions of her own.
Metke said stories like these are what make the campus special.
“For our 90th anniversary, we looked back at some of our golden years, but TJC has never been stronger, in better shape,” he said.
With enrollment expected to continue climbing, Metke said the school likely will have to add a fourth ceremony next year in order to ensure there is enough seating for families.