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Choosing the Mount by Cassie Carlson

Cassie Carlson was the student speaker at MWCC’s 2019 Commencement Ceremony. She graduated on May 23, 2019 from MWCC with an Associate’s Degree in Human Services. What follows is her message to the class of 2019.

It is an honor to be standing here today. Thank you for this opportunity. If you’ve ever seen my name on paper, it is Cassparina, but everyone calls me Cassie. I am a mother of 3 and stepmother of two, all over the age of twelve. My oldest is officially an adult and graduating high school in just a few weeks. I told her I was bringing all my Mount friends to her graduation party. I am originally from the West Coast, California and Oregon. I joined the Marine Corps in 1998 when I was 19 years old and I have been on the East Coast ever since.

The first time I ever walked onto this campus was in 2011. I was going through a separation and was determined to do all the things I had missed out on in life, starting with a college degree. My mother was a high school dropout and my father was a high school graduate. They did not see the value in college nor were they able to help me because they did not have the resources or knowledge to pass on. I had always wanted to go to college, but it always seemed as though it wasn’t the right time, or I couldn’t afford it, or someone else needed me more. But here was my chance, I walked into the admissions office and signed up. Just like that, I was a college student. I had young children at home, so I took all my classes online. That semester I failed all but one of my classes. I felt like a failure; I could not have predicted how much work was involved and trying to go about it alone was a huge mistake. I gave up after that semester. Who was I to think I could go back to school after so many years? I decided I was better off focusing on my kids and my job.

In 2016, my ex-husband was in a fatal motorcycle accident. I will never forget those moments, having to tell my children, I will never forget my sadness for myself and for my children. For months after, I struggled between balancing work and family. Working in retail, I missed a lot of dinners and holidays and their Dad had always been there when I couldn’t. I could feel myself spiraling into a depression. In one of my lowest moments, I told my boyfriend I just couldn’t juggle it all; I was always at work and I missed my kids. He said the simplest thing, “Then don’t. Go back to school like you have always wanted.” I just laughed at that thought because it seemed impossible. But it sparked a fire in me, and I started to consider the idea all over again. I wanted to set a good example for my kids. I wanted them to know that you can always start over, that it is never too late to fight for the things you want in life. I wanted them to be proud. The thought of going back to school was terrifying because all I could think about was that semester in 2011. But I decided, the kids were older, and I had an opportunity to try again. And I really wanted to prove that I could do it, that I wasn’t a failure, that I was destined for bigger and better things. So, I did it. I walked back onto the campus and right back to the admissions office and I signed up. Again.

I figured it would be better if I treated college like a job. I wanted to do as many online classes as possible to avoid contact with other humans. I didn’t feel like I belonged here, I was too old. I just needed that degree.

Then fate intervened. Over and over again.

Vision’s, a program designed to help first generation students like myself, completely sabotaged my antisocial plan. I was at the smart start and in walks Guarav, the director of the Trio program. He does his speech about how you qualify and the benefits of Visions. I can remember being skeptical about signing up for the program, but I said what the heck and was ushered away. The next thing I remember, I am in an office and we are “compromising” about how I am going to be taking classes on campus. I wasn’t too happy about that. Then I went to my first class. I had no idea how much I would love being in the classroom. I found that I was not alone. I met many other nontraditional students, and I enjoyed the social interactions with everyone. I found the support from Visions priceless; beyond the printing, tutoring, and workshops, they became my friends, my support system, a place to vent or get advice. I found my world expanding beyond my comfort zone.

It was at the open house where I met Candace, my first professor, and realized my major would be in human services. I cannot explain why or how it happened, but after our conversation, I just knew it was the right choice. Majoring in human services, I had the privilege of working with some of my very favorite professors and they were all so patient with me as I asked hundreds of questions trying to figure out my path. I was inspired to become more involved in clubs and civic engagement, and I found that I loved it.

However, I wasn’t only resistant to taking help from Visions; I was resistant to taking help from Veterans services as well. Having been out of the Marine Corps for over fifteen years, I didn’t feel like I deserved the help, and quite honestly, I had trust issues. But other veteran students nudged me to utilize the vet center, and Bob Mayer, director of veteran’s services, highly encouraged me to meet with our VA rep. Had I not finally given in, I would not have had all the help I am now getting. I am going to a four year college because Veterans services did not give up on me. I am forever grateful to that. But the friendships I have made with fellow veterans has been invaluable and I truly hold you all close to my heart.

But my life changed when I started working for student life. I became more involved on campus, I met so many students, staff, and faculty, and every one of them brought value with them and I also found that working for Kathy Matson may have been just as hard as my Marine Corps years. Student Life opened up a whole new world of experiences, I was able to serve as the student rep on many panels and groups and those experiences were truly unique, and I am grateful for every one of them.

But I have not been on this journey alone. My family has been there every step of the way. I am sure that at times I have been difficult to be around, but they have been patient and understanding for the last two years. Each semester has brought on a different challenge. My stresses over classes came home with me somedays. Sometimes, I would promise to be just a few more minutes trying to get a paper finished up, and those few minutes would turn into hours. I would carry my books everywhere I went because every time I had to pick a kid up, I was in the car studying. They were forced to hear all my stories about people they did not know and subjects they were not taking, and not once did they complain.

As I have journeyed through these last two years, I have found personal growth and inadvertently, found professional growth. Being an older student, I figured I would have too much life experience and would feel out of place. What I found instead is people, from all over the place, of all ages, with all very different stories and backgrounds, supporting one another. My outlook has completely changed about myself, my community, my education and career, and the Mount. I am proud to know all of you and although I am graduating from the Mount, this is not last time you see me because my daughter starts here in the fall. And I am so excited to watch her journey and her growth while at the Mount.

As we all venture out to do bigger things, whether it be a four-year college or a career, I encourage you to always look back on these days at the Mount, to remember back to these moments, where it all started, and to remember that you came this far for a reason; you can do hard things because nothing worthwhile in life comes easy.