Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Honoring Unsung Graduation Heroes

Image of 2014 commencement, students standing to be acknowledged.

There will be dozens of graduation ceremonies in the coming weeks highlighting students who have accomplished extraordinary achievements. The 2015 Rio Salado College Commencement ceremony this evening will not be an exception.

Right now, however, the spotlight is on those unsung heroes who will help fill the Comerica Theatre tonight—graduates like Kelly Kirlin who are pursuing higher learning to be of service to others and guests like her husband Mike Bennett who provide the support students need to succeed.

image of Kelly Kirlin

Kirlin is one of thousands of adult learners at Rio Salado who are returning to college while juggling family, work, life and all of the challenges that come with them. She had the benefit of family and friends to help her embark on and continue her educational journey.

“I had the unconditional support of my husband and my entire family,” Kirlin said. “It was their encouragement that made returning to school possible.”

Kirlin decided to return to school because there was a void in her life—as if she wasn’t doing what she was supposed to be doing. One thing was certain, there was a need to help people in a more significant way, especially people living with addiction and substance use disorders.

“Two of my family members were actively abusing substances while I was growing up,” Kirlin said. “I saw how addiction affects families and the lives of the user.”

Kirlin enrolled in Rio Salado’s Behavioral Health/Addictions and Substance Use Disorders program while working as a full-time chiropractic assistant. The online option was a big draw.

“That gave me the chance to go to school full-time online but also allowed for me to spend time with my daughter.”

With Bennett’s encouragement, she decided to quit her job and become a full-time student. Bennett not only took on side jobs to help make up for the loss in income, he and the family also agreed to move from Tucson to Queen Creek so Kirlin could benefit from Rio Salado’s in-person services.

“Once the Communiversity at Queen Creek opened, as it is literally located one minute from my house, I met Rio advisor, Jennifer Feland before every semester,” said Kirlin. She and I sat down and completed my educational plan for what classes I needed and in what order to take them. Without her help and guidance I don’t know that I would have stayed on track.”

Kirlin also took advantage of the study rooms, computers and other services. It was during one of her frequent visits that Kirlin learned of a part-time opening for a Rio Salado site support administrator at the Communiversity at QC. “I thought, what better way to give back to the community and the students than to work here?” Kirlin accepted the job in Feb. 2015. She will be among nine other Rio Salado employee graduates at tonight’s ceremony.

Kirlin will graduate with her level one and two certificates in substance abuse counseling tonight. She is 12 credits shy of earning an associate degree in social work.

There’s no doubt Bennett will be at tonight’s ceremony. He convinced Kirlin to take part after discovering she had no intention of attending.

“He has been supportive in every way,” said Kirlin. “He encouraged me when I was struggling getting assignments done on time, he gave me pep talks when I got discouraged. He would surprise me with flowers when I finished finals.”

“When I graduate I won't be just graduating for me,” said Kirlin. “I will be graduating for my family too.”